By Brandon Pemberton
Tonight the NBA’s Western Conference Finals begin with the 4th seed Oklahoma City Thunder versus the 3rd seed Dallas Mavericks. In the regular season the Mavs won the series 2-1, but that was before the Perkins trade and I don’t like to factor in regular season records when it’s playoff time because teams are usually way different.
Coaching: In just three years, OKC Head Coach Scotty Brooks his taken this team from a 22 win season to the Western Conference Finals. The job he has done coaching and developing these players that management has put together has been tremendous. He has his team dedicated to playing defense, forcing turnovers, and getting out on the break using their athleticism. Also underrated is the job assistant coach Maurice Cheeks has done with PG Russell Westbrook.
Dallas Maverick Head Coach Rick Carlisle has had some success in the league at different stops and has been to a conference final before(as Pacers coach in 03-04 season,lost to the Pistons). He has brought a no-nonsense, tough style of play to Dallas along with a defensive mentality, a style the Mavs have always shied away from in past years. The combo of a veteran coach as himself along with a veteran team has been a good combo and the Mavs will attempt to make it back to the NBA Finals.
Backcourt: The Mavs have a veteran backcourt led by the future hall of famer Jason Kidd. Even though he’s no where the player he used to be when he led the New Jersey Nets to back to back NBA Finals appearences in 2002 and 2003, Kidd runs the team well, getting the ball to the players in the right places and hitting the open three point shot. Deshawn Stevenson is the starting shooting guard and he brings the toughness, attitude, and defensive ability Dallas has lacked in the past.
Russell Westbrook is going to be a matchup problem for whoever has the assignment of checking him. You might see the Mavs try Stevenson on him, but in my eyes he has no shot of staying in front of him. Westbrook should have no prob getting in the lane and creating for himself or others. While the Thunder look for scoring out of him, they are a much dangerous team when he’s setting up his teammates first and then getting his later. Thabo Sefolosha is a very good defensive player who usually draws the best offensive perimeter player on a nightly basis. He’s the perfect role player for this team, a “glue guy”.
Frontcourt: While many have questioned his toughness and play in big spots(including myself), there is no denying that Dirk Nowitski has been one of the top 10 players in the NBA the past ten years. He’s going to be a nightmare for whoever is checking him, whether it’s Kevin Durant or Serge Ibaka. He has the ability to post Durant and take Ibaka out to the perimeter, put the ball on the floor and pull up and shoot. Tyson Chandler provides shot blocking, rebounding, and toughness at the center position, something the Mavs have lacked in previous years. Shawn Merion isn’t the player he was in Phoenix, but he still is productive finishing at the hoop and playing defense.
Kevin Durant is coming off an 39 point performance in game 7 against the Memphis Grizzlies in which he was a flat out killer. Look for much of the same against Dallas, as I don’t see who can check him. If he’s aggressive and gets to his spots on the floor, he could have his team in the NBA Finals in just his fourth NBA season. The play of Serge Ibaka is going to be a big key to this series on both ends of the floor. He will most likely draw the assignment of Nowitski, allowing Durant to play Marion and the other SF’s. Ibaka will try to use his length and jumping ability to bother Dirk and he should have the lateral quickness to stay with him on the perimeter. The addition of Center Kendrick Perkins was made solely for this type of series and I believe he will show his worth this series, mostly on the defensive end.
Bench: Dallas has a very good bench, with Jason Terry leading the way along with J.J. Berea giving solid minutes and rest to Jason Kidd and Peja Stojakovic’s career has been revived as well helping spread the floor with his 3 point shooting. Brendan Haywood is a good option and another big body with fouls to give at center for the Mavs.
James Harden has embraced his role as OKC’s sixth man and he slowly becoming one of the league’s best. Besides providing scoring, Harden is an underrated playmaker and defender as well. Eric Maynor gives OKC solid, turnover free minutes as their backup point guard and Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed play solid as backups in the paint.
With all that being said, I predicted OKC to reach the conference finals before the playoffs(http://brandononsports.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/nba-playoff-preview-and-predictions/) and I thought they would lose to the Lakers in 7. Now I like OKC to win this series in 7 games and they will face the Heat in the Finals. (I think….I know it’s a 7 game series but the Heat must win tomorrow.)