Last season, the Dallas Mavericks‘ road to their first-ever NBA title ran directly through the Oklahoma City Thunder. Lucky for the Thunder, however, this year’s Mavs team isn’t the same one they faced last season as they fell to the eventual NBA Champions in just 5 games.
This year, as Dallas looks to repeat last season’s success and the Thunder looks to prove that they are the future of the NBA, the two teams will clash in the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs.
Here are five things to consider heading into the match-up:
1. Which will win out? Youth or Experience?
This season, the Dallas Mavericks have looked worn down at times, leading Charles Barkley to ask at the beginning of the season if they were “too old.” After watching the Mavs all year, one has to wonder if Barkley was in fact right. With an average age of just over 30 years, the Mavericks are the oldest team in the NBA this season.
On the other hand, with an average age of just over 25, the Thunder is one of the youngest teams in the league, and they play with the high intensity that one would expect from such a young group of guys.
The good news for the Mavericks is that age often translates to experience. Dallas’ core team has successfully been through the playoff gauntlet winning it all just last season. OKC, however, has only one year of playoff experience under its belt, and given that they are so young, there are not many individuals on the team with much post-season experience.
If the Maverick’s have a chance of winning this series, it will be in large part because of that experience; the question is, can they keep up with the Thunder?
2. Does Dallas have what it takes to stop Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?
Last season, many basketball fans were wondering if Durant and Westbrook could co-exist as stars of the Thunder, often getting in each other’s way; this season, however, with Westbrook’s shot selection improving tremendously since last year, the two have turned into arguably the best duo in the league.
Kevin Durant, who just won his third-straight NBA scoring title averaging 28 ppg, will be tough to handle. Fortunately for Dallas, Shawn Marion is one of the best defenders in the game, and though no one expects him to shut down Durant, Marion is one of the few that has the ability to at least makes things a bit more difficult for the young star.
The problem is that, even if Dallas can somehow slow down Durant, they still have Westbrook, who is 6th in scoring in the league, to contend with. The two average over 51 points per game for the Thunder, and slowing them down is crucial for the Dallas Mavericks.
Beyond these two, the Thunder have Serge Ibaka, who leads the league in blocks (3.65) and adds 9.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
OKC’s James Harden, who is a favorite to win the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year, is another dangerous weapon for the Thunder.
Does Dallas have the manpower to contain them?
Don’t be surprised to see Mavs’ coach Rick Carlisle use the 2-3 zone early and often in an attempt to slow down the high-powered Thunder offense, much like he did last season when he was successful in slowing down Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
3. Can Dirk Nowitzki play at the same level as he did during last season’s playoffs?
Last season, Dirk had one of the best individual playoff runs we’ve seen in the history of the NBA, many times willing his team to win and carrying them on his back all the way to the end.
This year, Dirk hasn’t appeared to be the same player, though no one will argue that he still isn’t one of the best players in the league right now.
Nowitzki enters into the post-season averaging nearly 22 points and 7 rebounds ppg. The question is, can he step it up, much like he did last season in the playoffs? Is he capable of reaching that same level again?
The key to Dallas’ success begins and ends with the play of Dirk, and I don’t think he’s done just yet.
4. Can the Dallas Mavericks regroup?
Again, this isn’t the same Dallas team we saw tear through the playoffs last season. Though their core group remains the same with Dirk, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Shawn Marion, the absence of key players from last season such as Tyson Chandler, JJ Barea, and DeShawn Stevenson is quite a bit to overcome. New Mavericks Delonte West, Vince Carter, and Brandon Wright have been huge for Dallas this year, but will it be enough to compensate for their key losses?
5. Who will win?
I believe that the OKC Thunder’s offense and high-intensity play may be too much for this year’s Dallas team to handle. They simply have too many play-makers. I do believe, however, that the series will be closer than many think because of the Mavericks’ playoff experience, but again, they are not the same group as they were last season, and they have been too inconsistent all year to think that they will somehow be able to turn it on for the playoffs.
Look for the Thunder to avenge last season’s playoff loss to Dallas, and defeat the Mavericks in 6 games, thereby positioning themselves as the team to beat in the Western Conference this season, and probably for the next several years as well.
The series begins tonight, April 28, as Game 1 of the series tips-off at 9:30 EST.