There was no certainty that either the Dallas Mavericks or the Oklahoma City Thunder would win a playoff series this year. The Mavericks were underdogs in certain quarters entering their series against the Portland Trail Blazers, while the Thunder drew the red-hot Denver Nuggets in the opening round. Yet here we stand with one of these teams four wins away from the NBA Finals. Both Dallas and Oklahoma City have raised their level of play in the postseason to get here and will try to keep it up in this series.
WHEN DALLAS HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.6 possessions per 48 minutes (19th NBA), 83.7 (15th) playoffs
Dallas Offensive Rating: 111.8 points per 100 possessions (8th NBA), 115.9 (1st) playoffs
Oklahoma City Defensive Rating: 108.4 points per 100 possessions (13th NBA) regular season, 104.4 (3rd) playoffs
During the regular season, the Mavericks were outcored on a per-possession basis by the lottery-bound Houston Rockets. Yet in these playoffs, the Dallas offense has been a juggernaut, outscoring the rest of the league by a sizeable margin. The Thunder ranks second in postseason Offensive Rating at just 111.1 points per 100 possessions, and when we adjust for opposition, only the Miami Heat has been anywhere near as effective on offense.
The Mavericks' effectiveness begins, naturally, with Dirk Nowitzki. During the regular season, Dallas was 10.7 points better per 100 possessions on offense with Nowitzki on the floor, and his injury was responsible for knocking the Mavericks out of the league's five best offenses. Nowitzki has been borderline unstoppable during Dallas' run, increasing his usage rate to 32.0 percent of the team's possessions with zero loss of efficiency.
After Oklahoma City successfully dealt with the Memphis Grizzlies frontcourt, Nowitzki provides an entirely different test. Serge Ibaka figures to get the primary defensive assignment, which is a major change from the regular-season matchups between these teams. Nowitzki missed one of the three while sidelined and faced Jeff Green in the other two. He played just 22 minutes total with Ibaka on the floor, but during that period Nowitzki was 7-of-10 from the field per NBA StatsCube. Ibaka has the athleticism to keep up with Nowitzki and the length to bother his shot as much as is possible, but a patient Nowitzki may be able to use Ibaka's aggressiveness against him.
The Thunder will try to find an answer to the Mavericks' pick-and-roll game that eluded the Portland Trail Blazers and the Los Angeles Lakers against them. Though Oklahoma City is more disciplined in these situations, there may not be a solution when Dallas has Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic on the wings, making it impossible to give help without surrendering open three-point looks. Teams have tried every possible defense against this lineup with little success. Ultimately, the numbers do favor making Jose Barea score in traffic in the paint rather than risking the three. When the diminutive Puerto Rican is streaking to the basket at will, however, the math may go out the window.
The Thunder can help more aggressively against the Mavericks' starting lineup, which has been outscored by 25 points in the postseason because of poor offense. DeShawn Stevenson (despite good shooting in the playoffs) and Shawn Marion fail to create the same kind of dilemmas for opposing defense that Terry and Stojakovic produce with their shooting prowess.
Down the stretch, we may see Nick Collison match up with Nowitzki. What Collison lacks in quickness he more than makes up for in experience and defensive savvy, as he demonstrated with yeoman's work against Zach Randolph throughout the Memphis series.
WHEN OKLAHOMA CITY HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.5 possessions per 48 minutes (13th NBA), 90.5 (3rd) playoffs
Oklahoma City Offensive Rating: 113.1 points per 100 possessions (4th NBA), 111.1 (2nd) playoffs
Dallas Defensive Rating: 106.7 points per 100 possessions (9th NBA), 105.4 (6th) playoffs
Stop me if you've heard this before, but the Oklahoma City starting lineup has struggled to score points. The disparity isn't quite as dramatic as with Dallas' opening five, but the Thunder's starters have been outscored by eight points in the playoffs. That group is the team's worst offensive lineup that has seen at least 15 minutes of action together in the postseason. With nonscorers Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha on the floor, the Mavericks can be aggressive in packing the lane and providing help against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
As against the Grizzlies, the Mavericks' lack of go-to wing scorers means there is little incentive for Scott Brooks to keep Sefolosha on the floor much past the first media timeout of each half. Sixth man James Harden should play early and often because of the additional scoring punch and creativity he provides Oklahoma City. Harden won't have a matchup quite as favorable as Mike Conley in this series, but he will have a height advantage against Terry when the two sixth men square off and should be a featured part of the Thunder offense.
The marquee battle on the Oklahoma City side of the court will feature Durant against Marion, who has all the tools save length to match up with him. Following the lead of Tony Allen's success against Durant, expect Marion to try to use his strength and overplay Durant on the perimeter to deny him the basketball. The Thunder was finally able to exploit that defense with backdoor cuts in Game Seven and will need to continue to be creative with how to get Durant the ball.
DeShawn Stevenson also defended Durant regularly during the season series, but unless Rick Carlisle dramatically alters his rotation, both Stevenson and Marion will be on the floor together. When Marion is at the four in place of Nowitzki, Dallas can crossmatch, but when he rests Peja Stojakovic may be forced to defend Durant, which could spell trouble. The choice between Stojakovic's shooting and Marion's defense figures to vex Carlisle all series long.
The Mavericks have had more success against Westbrook, who shot just 31.8 percent during the season series. Stevenson may see some time against Westbrook, but for the most part Kidd figures to have the defensive assignment. During the regular season, Kidd did a fine job of playing far enough off of Westbrook to cut off driving lanes to the basket and dare him to be a jumpshooter. StatsCube shows Westbrook taking a slightly higher percentage of his shots from midrange against the Mavericks (34.1 percent) than usual (31.7 percent) this season. Dallas also did a good job of contesting Westbrook's shots when he did get to the rim, holding him to 44.4 percent shooting on these attempts.
The old adage is that only the fourth quarter of NBA games matters. It's a dumb stereotype, and this series figures to prove it. The most interesting action may come in the first six minutes of both halves, as two relatively weak starting lineups square off. It will be a battle for both teams to claim an early advantage before loading up as the coaches try to steal as much rest for their reserves as possible. The playoff numbers indicate that Oklahoma City may have a slight advantage when the starters are on the floor, but that the Mavericks have the superior finishing lineup, so the Thunder will probably need to grab to win some games wire to wire in this series.
While both teams are playing well, Dallas has had the better playoffs. The Mavericks were also stronger over the course of the regular season, boast home-court advantage and have a stronger track record of making timely adjustments throughout playoff series. None of these advantages are overwhelming, but they add up to make Dallas the favorite.
Dallas in 7
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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