Some 11 months after meeting with an NBA Finals berth on the line, the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder are squaring off once again. The last time a conference finals was replayed in the opening round the following year was 2001, when the Los Angeles Lakers swept the Portland Trail Blazers to follow up their seven-game win en route to the 2000 title. As in that case, the two teams have gone different directions since their last series, only this time the victorious Mavericks have slipped due to age and the loss of Tyson Chandler. Can Dallas rally for one last run before trying to remark the team in free agency this summer?
WHEN OKLAHOMA CITY HAS THE BALL
Pace: 91.8 possessions per 48 minutes (6th NBA)
Oklahoma City Offensive Rating: 111.6 points per 100 possessions (2nd NBA)
Dallas Defensive Rating: 103.9 points per 100 possessions (8th NBA)
There are plenty of things to dislike about the Oklahoma City offense. The Thunder turns the ball over far too often--most in the league, in fact, at 15.3 percent of plays. Oklahoma City also rarely gets assisted baskets, ranking 26th in the NBA in assists per field goal. During late-game situations in particular, the Thunder's offense can stagnate, devolving into Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook trying to make plays off the dribble while their teammates look on as glorified spectators.
Given all that, it's important to point out that Oklahoma City had the league's second-best offense on a per-possession basis. The Thunder executes the limited scope of its offense--primarily two-point baskets and free throws--at an exemplary rate. Oklahoma City attempted more free throws than any other NBA team and was one of just three teams in the league to shoot better than 50 percent inside the arc.
Naturally, both of those skills start with Westbrook and Durant, far and away the league's highest-scoring duo at a combined 51.6 points per game. The Mavericks retort with the same duo, Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd, that helped hold them in check during last year's Western Conference Finals. Durant hit a game-winner against Dallas during the regular season, but was held to 44.6 percent shooting from the field against Marion, an All-Defensive Team candidate. Durant was most successful against the Mavericks at getting to the free throw line, 38 times in four games.
In addition to Kidd, Dallas can also throw Delonte West at Westbrook, giving Rick Carlisle a couple of solid options. What Kidd gives up in quickness he makes up for in strength, size and veteran savvy. He shot just 39.2 percent from the field against the Mavericks, though again the free throw line (32 attempts) was his strongest asset.
What Dallas lacks from last season is the last line of defense. Brendan Haywood is an underrated paint defender who can contest shots and control the glass, but he is neither as athletic nor effective against pick-and-rolls as Chandler. He's also far less of a threat on the offensive end, so we could see the Mavericks go with either Ian Mahinmi, who played 28 minutes due to injuries the last time the teams met and scored 13 points, or Brandan Wright. The latter option, the most potent offensively, would probably require Dallas to play a zone defense. Packing it in and forcing the Thunder to score over the top could be especially effective against the starting lineup and non-scorers Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins.
Both against man and zone, James Harden figures to be an important part of this series. Matching up with him will be difficult for the Mavericks down the stretch, when they like to have the smaller Jason Terry alongside Kidd in the backcourt. Harden had a solid Western Conference Finals, shooting 53.5 percent from the field, though his regular-season numbers against Dallas are similar to those of his All-Star teammates: Poor shooting percentage (39.0 percent), tons of free throw attempts (25). Nonetheless, Harden's level of play as he returns from a concussion suffered when Metta World Peace flagrantly elbowed him last Sunday is crucial for Oklahoma City.
WHEN DALLAS HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.9 possessions per 48 minutes (16th NBA)
Dallas Offensive Rating: 105.2 points per 100 possessions (20th NBA)
Oklahoma City Defensive Rating: 104.1 points per 100 possessions (9th NBA)
Despite the problems Durant, Harden and Westbrook create, scoring points could be more troublesome for the Mavericks. They exploded for a 116.0 Offensive Rating in their lone head-to-head win, but still averaged just 103.5 points per 100 possessions in the four-game series. All season, the Dallas attack has been less effective than last year's crisp unit that torched opponents from the perimeter in the playoffs. The Mavericks shot 33.9 percent from beyond the arc, a below-average mark, and were right at league average in terms of assists per field goal--both hallmarks of last year's offense.
Over the course of the year, Carlisle began to favor offensive-minded players, including giving Wright extended minutes in the middle because of his ability to finish around the rim off the pick-and-roll game. Dallas also moved toward smaller lineups with Marion at power forward and Vince Carter at small forward to put more quickness and shooting on the floor. Expect to see a lot of those units when the Thunder puts Durant at power forward with the second unit. Alas, because the Oklahoma City offense is so difficult to stop when Durant plays the four (averaging 117.6 points per 100 possessions, according to BasketballValue.com's lineup data), that may not help the Mavericks.
The Thunder defense improved over the course of the season despite allowing a similar Defensive Rating because the league-wide average climbed as teams worked out their shooting rust. So, per NBA.com/Stats, Oklahoma City was 14th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions in January but tied for seventh in April. Serge Ibaka's growing shot-blocking prowess was a key aspect of the transformation. The Thunder allowed opponents to make just 45.1 percent of their two-point attempts, which ranked third in the NBA.
Fortunately, Dallas ranked 29th in the league in percentage of shot attempts at the rim, per Hoopdata.com, which neutralizes Ibaka's impact on this series to some extent. Instead, the Mavericks will be looking to generate offense from the perimeter via the Terry-Nowitzki two-man game.
During last year's series, Nick Collison was the primary defensive assignment on Nowitzki. He averaged just 19.7 minutes in head-to-head matchups this year, with Ibaka spending most of the time on Nowitzki. Durant may even get some opportunities depending on when the teams go to small lineups. Nowitzki shot 44.3 percent in the four meetings, though two of the games came during the season's first two weeks when Nowitzki was still struggling with his conditioning. Since the All-Star break, he's been relatively back to normal and poses more of a threat to Oklahoma City.
The Thunder can throw size on Terry with either Harden or Westbrook, but both players tend to wander at times on defense. Terry was strong against Oklahoma City during the regular season, averaging 18.5 points and 5.5 assists while knocking down 11 three-pointers in 23 attempts.
This isn't 2011. While the Thunder has continued on the ascent, the Mavericks are a shadow of their championship selves. Dallas won just one game in seven tries against playoff-bound opponents in the month of April and hasn't shown the ability to play at the same level as Oklahoma City on a consistent basis all season long. If Carlisle can manufacture close games using the zone and other in-game adjustments, Nowitzki and Terry may be enough to take the Mavericks home. Otherwise, the roster is just too deficient to knock off a Finals contender.
Oklahoma City in 6
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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