Despite their successful end of the season, the Mavs head into the series with OKC starting tonight (8:30 tip) with an uphill battle in front of them. The Thunder have been overlooked by many this season in the wake of what has been done by Golden State (all-time record for wins in a season) and San Antonio (the best regular season in their history), but the Durant-Westbrook led squad is very talented and has put together another strong season near the top of the standings after missing the playoffs last year.
If the Mavs are going to have success, where might they find it? And what do they need to try to avoid? As a companion piece to Matthew Postins' "Mavs-OKC Playoff Primer'' (a fine read) ... Here are my takes: My Seven (Non-Dirk) Keys To The Mavs Chances In OKC - Tonight And Beyond ...
1. Be Different - The Thunder swept the four games played between the teams this season, and those games offer hope for the Mavs fan only by squinting and playing the if-only game. As in, "Hey, wait, one game was a 'rest day' for the Mavs (where Carlisle rested Zaza, Dirk and D Will)", and "Look, two of the other three games were decided by only one possession - so if only they play those two games again and in each have one shot fall in that otherwise didn't, and another fall out that otherwise didn't, then the Mavs woulda won two of three." If only, maybe, coulda shoulda woulda.
A good approach? Not in my book.
We have to think that for the Mavs to win this series, they have to do something somewhat different - and better - than they did in the regular season matchups. And something besides "Ride Dirk,'' which goes without saying and is therefore not among the Magnificent Seven discussed here.
2. Slow your roll - It's easy to want to skip past the biggest problem when facing OKC, but it has to be noted. The tandem of Durant and Westbrook, two mobile, skilled, star-level scorers who can run and shoot with the best, is a beast.
The answer? Who knows. No one has truly figured out the kryptonite for them.
The Mavs certainly never slowed the Thunder in any game this season, allowing an average of about 113 points per game in the contests. Giving up that many offers plenty of stats to go around for all of them and makes them feel good about their games.
My personal observation is that maybe, just maybe, playing the slowest pace possible might help a bit. The idea there would be that you have two stars, only one ball, and the fewer shots there are in the game, the more "needy" each might become for the ball. Maybe less shots throws one or the other off their game, or maybe they find a way to get theirs with nothing left for the rest of their team.
3. JJB up - In that context, I like Barea as the starter, because it seems to me he does a much better job than any of the other PGs at the three-pronged job of controlling the pace, getting good looks for the team, and making the shots given him. But that's just my eyeball impression, and I have no stats to validate that impression other than the runs of success the Mavs had both times when using Barea for an extended role as starter (a 4-2 stretch in late Dec-Jan, and his 5-0 record when he was starting late season wins).
4. Glass problems - Another problem with facing the Thunder - and a big one - is that they are a dominant rebounding team. They feature five players who average at least 6.7 rebounds a game, a list that includes both of their star players (Durant and Westbrook) who give opponents fits by slashing with the ball and crashing the boards from the wings. OKC plays a rotation featuring two big men on the floor at all times.
One answer here is simply for the Mavs to play a bigger lineup in general. And while it didn't lead to a Mavs win on the boards either time, the two close contests between the two teams were ones in which the Mavs' small guards (D Will, Felton, Harris, and Barea) were used for about 85 minutes in total, which is about 30 less than they played in the double-digit loss. (For more on these Four Horsemen at Point Guard, read Jonny Auping's fine Premium Mavs piece.) In fact, if the Mavs are playing Matthews for 35 to 40 minutes at SG, trying to use his added size to try to slow Westbrook or Durant, that leaves only 56-61 other minutes at guard for the 4 other PGs to split.
Scheduling fewer minutes of play for those four small-but-talented guys may be a hard pill to swallow for both coach and players, but I think it might be necessary and a formula for better results.
5. Contain Kanter? - Worth particular note is Kanter, their backup center playing only 21 minutes per, but who puts up huge rebounding and scoring numbers in those limited minutes (12.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg). Did the Mavs have any success in slowing him this season? Nope. In the 3 contested games, he averaged 14 pts and 8 rebs (4 on the offensive end) in only 21 mpg.
He's big (6-11), and he's skilled. He actually is a good shooter everywhere, which forces teams to play him closely outside the lane. And then he goes past the defender (or the defender flies by on a late closeout) and he pounds the boards for put-backs (with almost 2/3 of his shots coming from point-blank range). He needs a decent defender who is big enough and mobile enough to keep a hand in his face, and can also keep him off the boards - do the Mavs have that guy?
It'd be nice if Mavs forward/center David Lee was available but it's now known that he has a partial tear of the plantar fascia in his right heel. Don't expect him tonight. Cross for fingers for Game 2.
6. Outside Rick's box - The X factor in this series? It has to be the coaches. Billy Donovan is a good coach but brand new to the NBA playoffs, and NBA history offers plenty of examples where the wily veteran coach pulls a few tricks out of his sleeve to befuddle the newcomer with a more talented team, and before you know it the upset has happened. Carlisle is one of the best, and is known for his willingness to go outside the box when needed, so adjustments from game to game may be significant.
7. The Fickle Finger of Fate - The last thing I'll note, in advance, is that momentum in this series will be a fickle thing. Every game is so big, that an unexpected outcome in any one game will cause craziness. Until, of course, another unexpected outcome happens. We learn this anew every year, and we'll learn it again in 2016.
It should be fun and drama-filled, and we will be kicking it around all night at all series on DB.com Boards, including inside the Mavs-OKC GameThread. Many think they know what will happen starting tonight in this best-of-seven; see Fish's sadly non-homerish column here on Mavs-vs.-OKC. But ... Predictions are not why they play the season. Games like these are. And it starts tonight.