As the Western Conference Finals begin tonight between the Dallas Mavericks and the Oklahoma City Thunder, a set of intriguing match-ups and story lines will start to unfold in what is sure to be an action-packed and entertaining series.
For starters this will be just the second time in the past 14 seasons neither the San Antonio Spurs nor the Los Angeles Lakers have appeared in the Western Conference Finals. These Lakers and Spurs have combined to appear in the Western Conference Finals 14 times in the last 13 seasons.
The Lakers and Spurs have won the Western Conference 11 times in the last 13 seasons and only once in the last 12 seasons have the Lakers or Spurs not been in the NBA Finals.
That one time was 2006, when the Dallas Mavericks won the West and went onto the NBA Finals, where they eventually lost to the Miami Heat.
This time around the Mavericks will hope to advance to the Finals and ultimately bring home the one prize that has eluded their future hall-of-fame superstar, Dirk Nowitzki—an NBA title.
To get back to the Finals, this year’s Mavericks team will have to fend off the young, up-and-coming, talented Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Thunder are led by their own budding superstar: two-time NBA scoring champ, Kevin Durant.
Although they will not be directly matched-up all the time, the comparison between the two superstars can’t be avoided.
Both tall and long forwards, with strong ball skills and incredible shooting ability, Nowitzki and Durant are the pulse of their teams. These two stars are the closers for their teams. As they go so to do their respective squads.
Durant comes into the Western Conference Finals averaging just below 29 points and eight rebounds per contest. Meanwhile, Nowitzki has put together another fantastic playoff season. Thus far 32-year-old German born star has averaged nearly 27 points and eight-plus rebounds per game.
This match-up will be the first one to keep your eye on tonight. Which superstar will rise to the occasion and out-perform the other? Whoever does could very well lead his team to the NBA Finals.
The next story line that will play out before our eyes tonight is yet another match-up, this one also featuring an aging future hall-of-famer against a young budding superstar. In this case the two will be matched head-to-head most of the time.
This battle will be between the 38-year-old future hall-of-fame point guard Jason Kidd and the 22-year-old, ultra quick Russell Westbrook.
Kidd still gets it done on a nightly basis, dishing out over eight assists per game through the regular season, while still showing flashes of scoring to keep opponents honest. Additionally, Kidd doesn’t turn the ball over, averaging just 2.5 turnovers per game in the post-season, all while playing outstanding defense.
Westbrook has a score first mentality as a point-guard, averaging just less than 24 points per game thus far in the playoffs. Westbrook is able to score while still dishing seven-plus assists per game, and like Kidd, Westbrook is an excellent defender.
The flaw in Westbrook’s game has been his turnovers and shot selection. The 4.5 turnovers per game have been a thorn in the side of his team, allowing opponents to capitalize with easy buckets on the other end.
This match-up could be the difference in an otherwise very even series. If Kidd can frustrate Westbrook and force him into bad decisions—turnovers and poor shots—the Mavericks could find themselves back in the finals. Conversely, if Westbrook can stay poised and be efficient in his shooting and limit his turnovers, the Thunder could represent the West in the NBA Finals.
In another alignment of old versus new, the sixth men in this series feature long time veteran Jason Terry of the Mavericks against the 2009 third overall pick, James Harden.
Terry has been outstanding this post-season, averaging 18.3 points per game off the bench for the veteran-laden Mavericks. Terry dropped 32 points on an incredible 9-10 three point shooting barrage that helped eliminate the two-time defending NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Harden has finally come into his own, embracing the role of the sixth man for the Thunder. During this playoff run Harden has become the Thunder’s third scoring option, routinely putting together games scoring in the high teens. Harden has averaged 12.4 points per game off the bench, but that has been steadily climbing throughout the post-season.
Whichever sixth man can provide more scoring punch off the pine could determine the outcome of this series.
The two superstars, the two point guards and the two sixth men—in a series that will be defined by the old stars versus young stars—could be the difference in who represents the West in the NBA Finals.
One more storyline to consider for tonight’s game: the long lay-off for Dallas versus the long series for Oklahoma City.
Who benefits more?
The veteran Mavericks with eight days off without playing a game or the Thunder coming off a grueling two-week battle that included seven games and four overtime sessions.
It is impossible to predict whether rust will be a factor for Dallas or tired legs will hamper OKC. Time will tell as the action unfolds tonight and over the next few weeks.
One thing is for sure: The Western Conference Finals will be a high scoring, action-packed, grueling and fun-filled series.
I look for an extremely hard fought series and I will stick with the Thunder to make it to the Finals as I have since before the playoffs began (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/666992-nba-playoffs-201110-reasons-the-bulls-and-thunder-will-meet-in-the-nba-finals).