While Durant has deservedly received the headlines, including treading at the top of most analyst's favorites for MVP, Russell Westbrook is seeking to stake claim to equal footing on the highest plateau of active players … and is doing so impressively.
The Thunder will welcome the Mavs having won five straight games, including handing Boston (9-3) their first and only home loss without the league's newest icon, Durant. Rather, they were led by Westbrook's 31 points, including two clutch free throws to put OKC up three with 13 seconds to play.
The Situation: It's been mentioned in this space, and throughout all coverage of the Mavs, this will be the second of four games in five days, and the end of the second back-to-back of the season. Minutes, or more precisely, rest, will be at a premium with San Antonio and Miami waiting in the wings … particularly with the heavy time levied to Dirk Nowitzki (40 minutes), Jason Kidd (38 minutes), Caron Butler (37 minutes) and Jason Terry (35 minutes) in the game against the Pistons Tuesday night.
The OKC Numbers: Last season, the Mavs fell in the middle of the road in their ability to contain Westbrook, though he was slightly over his season scoring average, with 17 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game against Dallas.
By contrast, they faired much better against the league's current leading scorer, Durant (28 points-per-game), who fell into the shadow of those held well below their regular standards by the defense of Shawn Marion. Dallas held him to his second lowest scoring average against any team at 22.5 … bettered only by his 20-per-game against the Orlando Magic.
The Dallas Numbers: OKC had no answer for Dirk Nowitzki last season, as he had his way with the Thunder defense to lead the Mavs in scoring (30.3) and rebounding (9.5). Unfortunately for Dallas, no other player averaged above Jason Kidd's 13.3 points.
The only Dallas players to shoot over 50-percent against the Thunder were Dirk (53.2), Kidd (55.6) and Brendan Haywood (60.0).
The Matchups: We'll get a true test to the improved Mavs defense, ranked fourth in points allowed at 91.6 per game, against the seventh ranked offense in the league: OKC's 102.4 points-per-game.
In contrast, this contest will also pit one of the five lowest scoring offenses in the league, Dallas (95.5), against a defense that allows the tenth most points, in OKC (102.2).
Defensive Factors of Note: One, Serge Ibaka.
Ibaka is a supremely athletic power forward who can finish with power at the rim, as well as stretch the defense out to a degree with a solid mid-range jumper up to about 15-feet. With his skill-set, it wouldn't be a surprise to find Dirk once again move over to guard the opposing starting center, Nenad Krstic; thus allowing Tyson Chandler to attempt to slow Ibaka (averaging 11.4 points and 7.2 rebounds in only 28.9 minutes-per-game this year).
Two, can Caron Butler maintain the constricting force on Durant's offensive game that Marion proved to be last season? Though the Mavs did not win either game against OKC with Butler on the team, Caron did do a fair job of muscling in on Durant and controlling his offense to some extent.
Three, though Carlisle bristles at the notion, it would seem reasonable to assume that the Mavs will employ a fair amount of zone to curb the penetration of Westbrook … as the Mavs are unlikely to deploy a defender capable of staying in front of the guard with consistency, especially with the apparent hesitancy to play Dominique Jones (not that he's the answer, only that he may house the quickness and defensive prowess to try).
An X-Factor on Offense: Caron Butler.
Last season, in his two games against the Thunder, Caron was hampered by the athleticism of the Thunder and averaged only 10.5 points on 25.9-percent shooting. He did succeed in other areas, such as his ability to push Durant around, and by grabbing eight rebounds-per-game.
As previously noted, for the Mavs to be at their best, Caron must perform better than this Wednesday night. Hopefully, he can build upon his fourth quarter against the Pistons and become the player the Mavs desperately need him to be.
Where the schedule may have been kind on Dallas in the first 12 games, the situation (four games in five nights), and the opposition, beginning with OKC, are beginning to pull in the opposite direction. It's time for the Mavs to set aside words and begin to assert themselves in the 2010-11 season by their actions … and their results.
The Mavs' probably starting lineup: Kidd, Stevenson, Butler, Dirk and Chandler. The Thunder's probably starting five: Westbrook, Sefalosha, Durant, Green and Krstic.