Czar’s Playoff Preview: Thunder vs. Mavericks Game 2

The Heat got one back in Chicago last night, and the Thunder are hoping to do the same tonight in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Many thought the Mavs would come out rusty in Game 1 after such a long layover following their 4-game Lakers sweep. The Mavs took a quarter to play their way back into a rhythm and then proceeded to dispel those fears and demonstrate why they’re the No. 1 shooting team in the playoffs so far. Down 7 at the end of the first 12 minutes, the Mavs put up 35, 35 and 31 on the way to their seventh straight playoff win (121-112).

Although the NBA’s leading scorer Kevin Durant did his thing and put up 40, his impressive performance was overshadowed by future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki, who had a simply awesome game. Dirk erupted for 48 points and perfection at the line, draining 24 of 24 to set the NBA record for most consecutive free throws without a miss. Whatever you want to call him (The German Shepherd? The White Mamba? Ghost Face Drilla?), it’s clear that Dirk is on a mission to erase the Finals of 2006. Fortunately he doesn’t have to do it alone. Dallas also got two stellar performances off the bench from Jason Terry and J.J. Barea, who combined for 45 points. Terry (the only other player remaining from the 2006 roster) has had three tremendous games back-to-back. And the crafty, quick Barea put on another pick and roll clinic to come up with a career playoff high 21 points.

Though the Mavs played lights out, the Thunder kept coming back and Durant kept making tough shots to keep his team within striking distance in the fourth. KD needs to get more support from Westbrook and the other starters as well as the bench (who played very well in their seven-game series against the Memphis Grizzlies) if the Thunder are going to outscore this loaded Mavericks team. More importantly, the Thunder need to tighten up on defense and find an answer for Dirk because whatever they did in Game 1 wasn’t good enough. OKC gave up 121 points and allowed the Mavericks to shoot over 53% from the floor. It will be interesting to see what adjustments Coach Scott Brooks makes to their defensive schemes. We’ll probably see them double team Nowitzki more to try and get the ball out of his hands and force other guys like Jason Kidd and DeShawn Stevenson to take shots.

OKC will try to tie up the series and steal home court advantage when the Thunder and Mavericks get it on again at 9:00 PM ET on ESPN.

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.