Czar’s 2011-12 Season Preview

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Czar’s Playoff Preview: Thunder vs. Mavs Western Conference Finals

The well-rested, third-seed Dallas Mavericks will host the battle-tested fourth-seed Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 1 of the 2011 Western Conference Finals. Coach Rick Carlisle’s veteran-laden Mavs squad has been off for nine days since shocking the 2X defending NBA Champ Los Angeles Lakers and most of the hoops universe by sweeping Phil, Kobe and company 4-0 in the semis. On the other hand, Coach Scott Brooks’ young Thunder had to battle through seven exhausting, high-intensity games including a historic 3-OT Game 4 victory in order to fend off an athletic, physical and relentless Memphis team in round 2.

This series represents a recent rarity in that neither the 4-banner San Antonio Spurs nor the 17-banner Lakers will be playing to represent the West in the NBA Finals. But each of this year’s title-hungry Western Conference finalists has its share of stars: 2nd Team All-League PG Russell Westbrook and 2X NBA Scoring champ, 1st Team All-League Kevin Durant light up the scoreboard nightly for OKC, while Dallas is led by 2nd Team All-League, 13th-year F Dirk Nowitzki, 10-time All-Star, 17th-year PG Jason Kidd, 11th-year combo-guard Jason Terry and 11th-year, 4-time All-Star combo-forward Sean Marion.

One major factor in this series is whether Dallas will be able to get themselves back into the in-game rhythm that enabled them to beat the Lakers in four straight with outstanding ball movement and 3-point marksmanship. And the Mavericks, who solidly defended against LA, must keep the young, up-and-down-the-94-feet-of-hardwood Thunder from scoring in transition. That will start with their offensive execution and whether or not they are able to make shots and create a tempo to their liking and tactical advantage.

Oklahoma City’s defense can be very impressive and smothering at times with their shot-blocking and active hands. They finished the 2011 regular season ranked second in the NBA in blocks and fifth overall in steals. The Thunder faced a very tough defensive team in Memphis with perimeter athletes galore and proved that they could execute their offense in the most hostile of environments. Their offense should be fine; it’s the Thunder’s team defense that will have to be sharp and tenacious to negate the Mavs’ varied offense led by the almost un-guardable shot-maker Nowitzki. Oklahoma City also must recover their mental focus and physical presence after such an intense battle to succeed in their first 2011 postseason series without home-court advantage.

These two teams played three times during the year with Dallas winning twice in Oklahoma and the Thunder beating the Mavs in Texas. So strangely, the road team prevailed each time. It’s been 131 calendar days since these talented foes last directly competed on January 6th. In the interim, Dallas’ starting SF Caron Butler’s season ended with a ruptured right patellar tendon, and the Thunder acquired C Kendrik Perkins from the Boston Celtics for F Jeff Green and C Nenad Krstic. So both sides will be sporting new, practiced and refined sets since they last played.

This series has a multitude of the NBA’s best players and will highlight the contrasting styles of a young, athletic, energy-fueled Thunder team against a savvy, veteran been-there-almost-done-that (see 2006 NBA Finals) Mavericks group. Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals tips off in Big D at 9PM ET on ESPN.

Czar’s End of Year Awards: Most Improved

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Czar’s Season Update: Most Improved Players

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Czar Asks You

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Late Sunday night in Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki and rookie point guard Darren Collison of the New Orleans Hornets traded basket for basket in a fourth quarter battle. Dallas won the game 108-100, but not before blowing most of a 25-point second-half lead. Collison’s 20 first-half points prevented this game from becoming an early wipeout. And his clutch fourth quarter performance nearly allowed the Hornets to pull off their second highly improbable comeback in days.

Rookie point guards continue to make headlines in the NBA. While Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings jumped out as early ROY candidates (and probably continue to be the favorites), Collison and Golden State’s Stephen Curry are making strong late season surges. Collison has made the most of his added minutes with the injury to starting point guard Chris Paul.

And Curry appears to be hitting his stride in a free-flowing Golden State offense that suits his skill set.  Johnny Flynn in Minnesota has also had a very solid rookie campaign as has Ty Lawson in Denver. At draft time last year, the expectation was that Blake Griffin might be the only potential star among the rookie crop – but these point guards may turn out to be the real story.

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And they’ve had the opportunity to compete among a number of greats who came before them. In the first round of last year’s playoffs, Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo went toe-to-toe in one of the classic playoff series of recent years. Both also made their first All-Star appearances this year. Russell Westbrook is having a superb season with the surprising Thunder as is Aaron Brooks with the Rockets. This is even before mentioning the triumvirate of Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Tony Parker, who are hitting the prime of their careers, and the old guard of Steve Nash, Chauncey Billups and Jason Kidd, all of whom are enjoying terrific seasons.

Together with the rookies, this group forms what may be one of the finest collections of point guards in NBA history. Kentucky point guard John Wall may soon join their ranks as many expect him to be the first pick in this year’s college draft.

Q: Do you think there has ever been a more dominant group of NBA point guards or are these guys in a league of their own?