The Dallas Mavericks swept through the Los Angeles Lakers, sometime last fall, like they didn't even know that Kobe Bryant and company were the two-time defending champs. The Oklahoma City Thunder? They just squeaked by the Memphis Grizzlies, and let me know if my timing is off here, around 4 a.m. on Tuesday morning. I believe Mike Conley still hasn't been informed that the series is over. Somebody get the kid a towel.
We have to move on, though, and preview the Western Conference finals. So bear with me and then behold the staggering genius of Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as we look at what might go down between the Thunder and the Mavericks.
A couple of days later, despite numerous attempts at getting this right, Dallas and Oklahoma City in the third and hopefully fourth week of May just doesn't sound right.
Many pegged OKC the latest and greatest threat out West before the season started. In scores of BDL Chats!, I pegged the Mavericks as championship contenders that belonged amongst the usual top-tier suspects. I meant it, too, but really? No Lakers, Spurs or Nuggets? No Jazz? No Hornet (there's only one of them, and his name is Chris Paul)?
Dallas and Oklahoma City?
Dallas and Oklahoma City is an "ooh, that'll be a good one too" second part of a doubleheader that we look forward to on Thursday night, as the super-important supposed finals or conference finals preview between Miami and whomever wraps up. It's a couple of nice teams that have and will continue to do well, before the slaughter. Usually at the hands of Kobe Bryant.
Alas, no slaughter. And, actually, Dallas went through Los Angeles, winning handily at the hands of Dirk Nowitzki in a four-game slaughter. And Oklahoma City honestly looked like the hands-on favorite to top the Lakers, had they somehow met in the first, second or third round. Dallas and Oklahoma City deserve to be on the tip of our tongue in the second or third week of May. One of them deserves our respect when June rolls around.
So who takes it? The team that spaces things out, passes a bunch, and looks good in blue? Or the team that packs it all in, moves into the right spots, and looks good in blue?
Well, the fact that these aren't the same teams that we admired in some made-up January showdown on TNT plays a part. OKC has changed considerably since the trade deadline because of a pair of deals that shook up its rotation in a desperately needed way. Dallas, without the benefit of a major move, has enjoyed the same needed shake-up based entirely on internal development, and it hasn't even gotten to utilize Roddy Beaubois (as most suspected) during that growth spurt. Looking back on Dallas' 2-1 record against OKC during the regular season just isn't enough.
The layoff, though, might be enough to tilt things. The Mavericks will play basketball on May 17 for the first time since May 8, and while I don't fully expect the Thunder to roar out to a 32-16 lead in the first quarter of Game 1, I do expect that time off (thanks a lot, Lakers) to catch up to them at some point during the team's first two games in Dallas. All the practice in the world can't prepare you for Nick Collison's moving feet, and all the rest in the world (and, after eight days, Dallas has had all the rest in the world) won't make up for a series of dulled senses.
And then it goes up to OKC for two, which should be the death knell, right? But Dirk Nowitzki hits threes, now. So does Jason Kidd, apparently. And Tyson Chandler just got fouled as he pulled in the defensive rebound, the Mavs are up 13 with five minutes to go, and the Thunder are already in the penalty. Tyson Chandler is pumping his fists, and Tyson Chandler hits free throws, now. Even on the road.
What I'm expecting is fantastic basketball. These are, I'm sorry, second-tier teams with championship-worthy rosters. They aren't what we expected to see right now, though we always gave them deserved lip service, and they're probably going to play each other to a draw over the next two weeks.
My pick? Mavericks in seven.
Hey, you! Yeah, YOU! I got something to SAY to you, so you better listen and listen good: Welcome back to "PLAAAAAAAAAAYOFFS!"
It's time for the conference finals, gang. Our journey's halfway done. Four of the NBA's best and brightest teams competing for the right to play for a championship — what could be better? (NOTE: That's an honest question. It's not just an oblique reference to contemporary Christian band 33Miles. Any references made to them will be clear, direct and fawning.)
Here to offer their made-up perspective on the Western Conference finals matchup between the Mavericks and the Thunder are 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center-turned-celebrity motivational speaker Mark Eaton and 310-year veteran/olde-tyme crustbucket Ol' Man Howard!
Ol' Man Howard: Begin discussing Dallas and Oklahoma City.
Mark Eaton: Well, Olie, your Thunder pick made you one-for-two, but it looks like I was wrong about both Western Conference semifinals series this year. I guess you could say I was blinded by the chance that my wish would come true and we'd get a Pau Gasol vs. Marc Gasol matchup.
OMH: Your passion for brotherbeards ... it consumes you. Clouds your judgment. Unsettles those around you, in sooth.
ME: We all have our crosses to bear, partner.
OMH (interrupting): I mean to say, the way you love chin-haired families strikes me as real odd.
ME (continuing): … and in this series, Dallas is going to have to bear a big ol' cross from Washington, D.C., by the name of Kevin Durant. Thirty-nine points in a must-win Game 7 against the Memphis Grizzlies to push his Thunder to the Western Conference finals, and let's be honest: We're running out of ways to describe just how good this kid is
OMH: I've long held that he's a nightmare spawn. Shining teeth and full-ta-burstin' rucksacks got y'all fooled, but I see him f'r what he is — a sleep-spoiler. A dream-ruiner. The end of basketball days. The skin markings are hidden, but they're there, all right.
ME: I couldn't agree more, my friend. What a ballplayer! Of course, that big German on the other sideline's no slouch, himself. Dirk Nowitzki led the Mavs in their four-game dismantling of the Los Angeles Lakers, and he's hit an amazing 60 percent of his 3-pointers through the first two rounds.
OMH: Never much cared for saxophone players — that's a problem goes back many a year, back even before you were knee-high to a creep's beard, between me and Ike Quebec — but as foreign woodwinders go, I suppose the Teuton's all right. Minus those flamingoed floaters, that is. Two set feet were good enough for Bobby McDermott. Ought to be good enough for this fella, too, I reckon.
ME: Well, however these two sterling competitors come by their baskets, they sure do come by them; Durant and Nowitzki have two of the postseason's four highest points-per-game averages. One other key factor to consider: How rest affects rhythm. Game 1 will tip about 48 hours after Oklahoma City finished off Memphis, while Dallas hasn't faced live action since closing out the Lakers nine days ago. Do you expect the Mavs to come out a bit rusty after all that time off?
OMH: No, sir. Believe you me, rest does old bones good, and they needed it; that point guard of theirs looks more like an All-Hallows-Even ghoul with each passing day. The Texans will be hale, hearty and hard to beat. Mavericks in six.
ME: I hear what you're saying, friend, but I just can't help thinking that youth will be served, and now I can't help thinking that "Youth Will Be Served" is a pretty good idea for a lecture series that'll get teens interested in pitching in around their communities.
OMH: Nobody cares enough about civics these days.
ME: Oh, they'll care, all right. We'll make them care. We'll make them care enough to put a new gigantic infinity pool in my yard. Oh, right, basketball. Thunder in six.
(Dan thinks the Mavericks will win in seven games.)
Eric Freeman's Reputation Index
The regular season counts, but the postseason is where reputations are made. Tracy McGrady never won a playoff series and will always be seen as a disappointment. Derek Fisher lacks several fundamental basketball skills but will always be seen as a champion because he makes big shots when it counts. Chauncey Billups owes his entire nickname to the 2004 playoffs. The point being that playoff performance skews national perception of NBA players beyond all reason. In that vein, behold the BDL Reputations Index, your guide to what's at stake for the top names in the conference finals.
Kevin Durant: In truth, Durant has already achieved all he needs to maintain his current reputation as one of the best and most likable players in the NBA. He led the Thunder to two series wins against upstart squads and now has his team on the brink of the finals. Failure to move on would be a disappointment but not a game-changer, at least barring some sort of epic multi-game meltdown on his part.
Still, a victory over the Mavericks would make the last remaining doubters acknowledge that Durant isn't just a budding star, but legitimately one of the two or three best players in the league. There's no major narrative at play in this series, but it could set up either a good vs. evil battle against LeBron James or a matchup against Derrick Rose's Bulls to determine the title of People's Champion for the foreseeable future. Durant's legacy remains intact, but it could reach even loftier heights soon.
Russell Westbrook: Westbrook had a bizarre series against the Grizzlies, putting in several frustrating shoot-first performances and then having an electric triple-double in Game 7. Whereas he'd spent most of the series looking for his own shot, Westbrook was suddenly doing everything in his power to get his teammates good shots.
For better or worse, that game will inform our experience of this upcoming series. It's either a pivot point for his career, the moment in which he really got the point guard position, or an outlier, a performance that hinted at the kind of player he could but doesn't want to be. The truth is a little hazier -- Westbrook is often at his best when he's trying to score -- but at this point of the playoffs, false dichotomies often win out this deep into spring.
Mark Cuban: At this point in his tenure, Mark Cuban has a pretty well-established reputation as a good owner: The Mavs win consistently, he spends money to make sure they keep doing it, and he certainly doesn't make any more of an ass of himself than the Maloofs or any of the owners who can't keep their team financially solvent. So it's not quite right to suggest that a second trip to the finals would make people look at him in a new light, because anyone with half a brain realizes that he's more than a sideshow attraction.
But that's not to say that a win over the Thunder wouldn't mean anything, especially in a season where the Mavs haven't exactly been anyone's idea of a favorite. They're a team full of good players, the kind that gets better through experience playing with each other and the knowledge that the front office believes in them. To put it another way, the Mavericks are where they are now in part because Cuban hasn't played around with the roster or introduced too many big names with reputations that outweigh their contributions. Getting this team to the finals would force more people to admit that the league's enfant terrible has matured.
Dirk Nowitzki: In taking a presumed West also-ran to the conference finals, Dirk has already done wonders for his reputation. "Choker" labels make way less sense when they're affixed to a guy whose team out-performed expectations, and the evisceration of the Lakers made the Mavericks look tougher than they have in years. All that's left to decide now is whether Dirk rids himself of that label forever with a championship win, or if he'll be remembered as a great player who wasn't quite good enough to be one of the best players of his era.
Yet contemporary concerns have never waited around for historical perspective, and Dirk's standing could change significantly with a trip to the finals. Nearly 33 years old, Dirk has been assumed to be past his prime even as he's continued to post stellar numbers and keep the Mavs relevant for more than a decade. Playing for a championship would ensure that he'd be named among the best handful of players in the league. For a player who was passed over for an All-NBA First Team spot this season, that's not a minor issue.
My pick? Thunder in six.