Playoff Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder vs Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks have limped into the playoffs again, unable to secure a spot without a Dirk Nowitzki throwback to his younger days in a much-needed game at the end of the season. The Mavericks are full of veteran guile, players on short contracts and a small core, including a couple guards that have been on and off of the team for a decade now in Devin Harris and J.J. Barea. They have an intriguing young wing whose minutes have gone up and down throughout the year, and their big man rotation has fluctuated all year. They ended up near the bottom of the playoff qualifiers and have to go up against a juggernaut with a core that’s played together far longer and is far more talented. This series should be a quick sweep without much excitement.
Sound familiar? That’s because the same intro could have been written in 2014, when Rick Carlisle used the cast-off team of Mark Cuban’s “fallen angel” contracts around Dirk Nowitzki to push the eventual champion Spurs to seven games in their toughest test throughout the postseason. Now? The Mavericks are better and their opponent, the Oklahoma City Thunder, isn’t as good. The Thunder have more flaws and a dramatically different level of coaching. The Dallas Mavericks have a puncher’s chance here. Nobody’s being fooled here—the Thunder are the better team. But coaching, key matchups, and the Westbrook factor are going to be what this series turns on, and the Mavericks have a huge advantage in that first category.
The Coaching Battle
Coaching is going to come out in three main ways in this series: the Mavericks’ defensive scheme, the pace, and the lineup choices and minutes staggering each team chooses to go with. Throughout the season, many have lamented the Thunder’s decision not to ensure one of Durant or Westbrook was always on the floor. We’ll see what happens, but here are some key facts about those two. When both are on the court, Oklahoma City outscores opponents by 13.3 points per 100 possessions . When both sit, the Thunder get outscored by 8.5 points per 100 possessions. With only Durant, they outscore opponents by 8.7, and when Westbrook alone plays they outscore opponents by 5.4. For the Mavericks, Carlisle experimented late in the season with Dirk Nowitzki playing center. We’ll look at how some of the key matchups will make this possible, but Oklahoma City presents a very high-risk, high-reward team to use a Dirk-at-Center lineup against. (Note, all on/off stats are courtesy of nbawowy.com)
In 2014, we saw how Carlisle could completely change a defensive scheme to slow down a team. With the Spurs ball movement dependence out of the pick and roll, Carlisle elected to go against the traditional way that NBA teams defend (using all five guys), and instead keep the three off-ball players on their assignment and guard the pick and roll with only the two defenders directly involved. We’ll see just what Carlisle cooks up in his lab, but expect a steady diet of different defensive fronts, like Rob Ryan’s New York Jets when they took down the Tom Brady-led Patriots in the playoffs a few years ago. Blitzes, late swaps to zone, aggressive double teams—nothing is out of the question. Per Synergy Sports Tech, Oklahoma City is the 21st ranking offense against zone fronts, which they’ve only faced for 126 possessions (the bulk of which came against the Mavs bench in a January game where all five starters sat). The Mavericks’ various zone defenses, typically a matchup zone, have them as the 8th best zone in the NBA this season. Dallas is also the most experienced zone team in the NBA, per Synergy, as they run their zone 6.3% of the time. Only one other team uses zone more than 2% of the time (the Phoenix Suns).
Finally, look for the pace. The Mavericks got hot by slowing the game down, holding their turnovers to one of the lowest per game averages in the NBA during their recent spate of winning, while the Thunder spend 16% of their offensive possessions in transition, the fifth highest amount in the NBA. Oklahoma City plays the third most possessions per game, while Dallas over the season has been 23rd in pace, and even slower in the last two weeks of the season. Which team can impose their will on the speed of the game will go a long way towards deciding if the series is over quickly or not. (Pace and possession stats courtesy of Synergy Sports Tech)
Russell Westbrook vs. Devin Harris, Deron Williams, and Wesley Matthews
Westbrook is a unique force among point guards, and Dallas will have to change its scheme depending on who they match up with the athletic freak. With Harris on him, look for the Thunder to post up Westbrook and let him run the offense from the block. With Deron Williams, the Thunder discovered in the regular season that Westbrook isn’t going to gain traction on the block so they’ll put him in the high pick and roll as much as possible, likely combined with whomever Dirk is defending. Wesley Matthews is best equipped to guard Westbrook, and is the Mavericks’ best chance to neutralize the Westbrook/Durant pick and roll.
Justin Anderson vs. Kevin Durant
This is not an equal battle. The scrappy rookie out of Virginia is Dallas’ best athlete by far, however, and whenever Matthews isn’t on KD, look for Anderson to take the job. In a throwback to 2011, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Deron Williams spend some time there as well, but Anderson’s ability to stay on the court and make KD work will be a key reason the Mavericks pull out wins if they do.
Salah Mejri vs. All Comers at the Basket
The Tunisian rookie’s biggest moments this season have almost all come against the Thunder, including two monster blocks, one each on Westbrook and Durant, as part of the Mavericks’ furious comeback in the January 22nd game. Take a look:
Mejri has played more towards the end of the season in a rotation with Zaza Pachulia. Early in the year, Dwight Powell played well against the Thunder and we may see him as well, but we’re likely to see Mejri tested in a crucial situation by a Westbrook pick and roll. We’ll see if the 29-year old rookie, with years of international experience, is ready for the pressure of the NBA playoffs.
The Westbrook Factor
Russell Westbrook is a force of nature. He’s a triple double machine. He jumps higher, runs faster, and pushes harder than any other player. All of these things have huge upside, but they also have downside if you play him well. If any coach can take advantage of Westbrook’s tendency to launch too many pull-up threes, make ill-advised passes, or over-dribble, it’s Rick Carlisle. On the other hand, any mistake will be punished with ruthless dunks, lobs, or slick passes across the court to open shooters. Westbrook was ejected from one of the four matchups between these teams earlier in the season, as J.J. Barea’s pest-like defense can get to the fiery Westbrook more easily than other players. We saw a similar hothead end up ejected in 2011, when Barea’s constant attacks cost Andrew Bynum his chance to finish out a game.
The Aspiring Coaches’ Corner
Watch for this floppy set to get Enes Kanter an easy post-up and likely buckets, 3-4 times a game. Kanter’s ability to get buckets against second units will impact at least one game, but his inability to play defense may have the same effect. You will see it coming because Kanter always starts on the right block, so that he can get set up on the left and go to his strong hand if he heads for the paint. A Floppy set is where the two guards start on the block, and the big men each set a down screen for the wings to run out and receive a pass. In this set, Kanter will then receive a cross-screen from the other big man and lead into good post-up position in his favorite spots.
I think this series has too many eerie similarities to 2014 against the Spurs. The biggest problem, and what will likely tip the series and is why the Thunder are so heavily favored, is that the Thunder are simply far more talented than the Mavericks. As many opportunities as Dallas has to make this a good fight, I expect an OKC victory in 6 games. My gut says OKC will take game 1, Carlisle will master a game two victory and Dallas can nab the first home game of the series to go up 2-1 and spark some big stories, but then the Thunder superstars will settle down, adjust, and bring them to the second round.
Look for postgame breakdowns and some X and O analysis in the coming weeks as the series progresses!