Note: Watch my conference final breakdowns with Noah Coslov of CineSport.
Click HERE for my breakdown of the Bulls-Heat series.
The Western Conference Finals is a classic battle between an entertaining upstart and grizzled veteran: Oklahoma City is young and fearless while Dallas is elderly and plainly aware.
Since this series features two legitimate superstars, it’s only fitting that we start the analysis there.
In some ways, the Thunder's Kevin Durant and the Mavs' Dirk Nowitzki reflect the overall series. Durant is the two-time defending scoring champ whose chances at a title are seemingly endless. Nowitzki is the slower and more acute scorer whose window is closing.
The biggest problem Dirk causes for OKC is his versatility away from the basket. Both Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison are terrific defenders, but both excel in doing so on the low block. In the playoffs' second round against Memphis, Collison was stellar in his defense of third team All-NBAer Zach Randolph, while Ibaka was a constant force at the rim. In the deciding game seven, it was Collison’s defensive effort on Z-Bo that clinched the victory. Collison's plus-minus metrics in that game were astounding. With him on the floor, the Thunder held a 26-point advantage. Without, the Grizzlies outscored them 37-26.
But Nowitzki just happens to be seven feet tall, shoots 39 percent from three and can just as easily put it on the floor or post up. Neither Ibaka nor Collison are adept at defending 24' feet from the basket.
In Dirk's 50 minutes of total floor time in the Mavs' two regular season games against the Thunder, he lit them up with 47 points on 62 percent shooting, including 19 trips to the free throw line.
OKC Coach Scott Brooks is essentially facing the same problem as the rest of the league: put his two most versatile bigs on Dirk and risk long range bombing or foul trouble. Or, go small by putting wing defenders on Dirk and risk his lethal inside game.
I expect Ibaka to start on the big German, but look for a variety of match-ups from Brooks, who will hope to throw Dirk's timing even the slightest bit.
While there doesn’t seem to be any particular antidote to stop Dirk, there may just be for Durant. Just as Ron Artest bodied him up in last year's playoffs, so, too, have defenders this year. Durant is a dynamic scorer but bumping him and forcing him to shoot two to three feet off his desired spot is an effective potion.
During their two regular season match-ups, it was the Mavs' Caron Butler -- not Shawn Marion or DeShawn Stevenson -- who defended Durant. Marion is still a super athlete but he doesn’t possess the strength of Butler nor the feline-type quickness of the old Matrix. Stevenson is a physically imposing defender but has nowhere near the lateral quickness or size it takes to bother KD.
Another crucial match-up in this series is the guards and specifically the point guards.
OKC's Russell Westbrook has been heavily maligned for his errant shot attempts and, at times, his refusal to incorporate Durant into the offense. In games one and three against Memphis -- both of which were losses for the Thunder -- Westbrook turned the ball over seven times. And turnovers in general are a massive issue for the Thunder, who commit the most in the league.
Against a team as offensively proficient as the Mavs, OKC simply cannot afford such mishaps. The Thunder is going to make its share of mistakes. They run as much as anyone and with Westbrook still just 22 years old and his backup, Eric Maynor, only 23, turnovers are unavoidable. As long as they let that number creep into the high teens or 20s, they'll be fine.
Westbrook struggled at times against Dallas this year, mostly because Jason Kidd backed off and essentially willed Westbrook to settle for mid-range jump shots, instead of attacking the basket. If he's hitting those shots at a consistent clip in this series, then the slow-footed Kidd will be forced to guard him further out and thus be exploited. If not, the Thunder are in trouble.
The Mavs are hoping that even if Westbrook does reach the basket, he will still be deterred. Tyson Chandler is one of the best defensive weapons in the game and is a key reason why the Mavs are No. 1 in the league in drawing free throws (20.9 per game). Still, Westbrook is a jolt. His ability to get into the teeth of the defense is a big reason why OKC is first in free throws attempted at 31.3 per game. Something has to give.
Ultimately, I expect Dirk and Durant to mitigate each other in this series, so the deciding factor will be the bench -- an area where the Thunder are younger, more explosive and more talented.
Brendan Haywood is a big body himself who will help on the boards and thwart some drives, but he is terrible on offense, so Rick Carlisle can only play him in bunches.
Make no mistake, Jason Terry and J.J. Barea have been superb thus far for the Mavs. But they are small guards who struggle finishing at the rim, especially against the type of length and bodies OKC will throw at them.
Oklahoma City's Brooks, meanwhile, has an abundance of young and able players at his disposal. James Harden is the team's clear-cut X-factor, as a play-making wing who can really fill it up from deep. He was a steady force against a Memphis team with perhaps the best crew of perimeter defenders in the league. Nobody in particular on the Dallas bench matches up well on Harden, and with Marion forced to watch Durant, he should have plenty of open looks.
Collison is a defensive stalwart who rebounds the heck out of the ball and collects plenty of backbreaking tip-ins. Maynor meanwhile is the perfect change of pace point guard whose 15 minutes per game will help Westbrook rest just enough to keep fresh. Maynor is a sticky defender who can guard Barea well and an excellent three-point shooter at 38.5 percent. Daequan Cook has been a pleasant surprise as a long range poacher who spreads the floor really well.
The Mavericks were undoubtedly splendid in their 4-0 rout of the Lakers, but many of LA's problems were self-inflicted. Dallas has now been off for nine days and could have issues early in its half-court sets on both ends of the court. They are rife for a game one upset at home, and with the way OKC plays at home, that win could dictate the entire series.
But putting the above analysis aside, this match-up could be relatively simple.
Durant and the Thunder may be just young and dumb enough to not understand the stakes here. Dirk and the Mavs know this could very well be their last chance at a ring. Dallas, as we know, has been known to fold under pressure.
Give me the Thunder in seven.