We're three games into the NBA's conference finals, and the feeling around the neighborhood is that we could also be well on our way to a competitive two weeks that features two seven-game series full of ultra-close and ultra-fab basketball.
But it's up to the teams to keep it up and not get caught on the wrong end of four quick close losses on their way toward summer vacation. Let it get to summer first, right?
So, as we prepare for Thursday night's second game between the Mavericks and Thunder, here are a few things each team needs to look out for to keep the guns blazing.
Here are a few things each team needs to look out for to keep the motor running.
Here are a few things each team needs to look out for to keep the basketball good. Click the jump, it'll get better.
1. The Dallas Mavericks cannot be in awe of Dirk Nowitzki
Check out Tyson Chandler's comments from a Wednesday radio interview about dearest Dirk:
"I think that whoever is guarding him feels like they're on an island all by themselves and everybody in the arena is watching Dirk put on a show. I mean, last night I was on the bench and I don't how many times I looked over at DeShawn Stevenson at one point when he was on the bench with me, Caron Butler and a couple other guys, and I was just in awe. The only thing I said is this dude's a monster. He's a monster.
"I'm just saying, when you actually think about that — this man threw up the ball 39 times and 36 times it went in. I'm sure that in your pick-up league, you guys couldn't do a layup drill and make 36 out of 39."
OK, first? He's right. The dude is a monster. The best, right now, until LeBron James peels off a series of 39-9-9 nights.
Secondly, Chandler isn't going to be the problem if the Mavs stand around and watch Dirk in Game 2 and beyond. But if the Mavs do lose their spacing and ability to contribute alongside Nowitzki, Oklahoma City could see itself going home soon with the home-court advantage.
Because screens need to be properly (not illegally, but close) set on the weak side to help give Dirk that extra edge as he works to the strong side to meet the ball. Jason Kidd has to continue his expert entry passes (no sweat), but he's also going to have to hit jumpers when Dirk gives the entry pass if Russell Westbrook decides to swoop down to help. Weak-side guys have to be ready to hit shots. Chandler has to screen off the ball for potential shooters to hit the corner. Chandler has to be ready for both the pass, finish and potential free throws should Kendrick Perkins come Dirk's way.
Every part, including Nowitzki's golden right arm, has to be on top of its game.
Speaking of Perk …
2. Perk needs to not be a jerk.
We get the enthusiasm, if you can call it that, and all the growling. You're the championship veteran, Perk. A winner in 2008 and near-winner last year who is still bitter over what he could have done while healthy in a close Game 7 loss to the Lakers.
And, yes, you don't like Tyson Chandler:
"Me and Tyson never got along. I'm serious," Perkins said. "He don't like me, I don't like him and that's pretty much how it's been. Everybody always looks at me as kind of like a dirty player if you're on the opposite team, but he's just as dirty as anybody else."
We know you're serious. You're Kendrick Perkins, Kendrick Perkins.
But every penny counts in a series like this. Every technical, leading to a point for the other team, counts. Every "needed" hard foul on Chandler off the ball a minute into a quarter helps Jason Terry get two easy free throws later in the quarter when Dallas gets in the penalty. And though the whistles won't come as cheaply in Game 2 as they were in Game 1, there is nothing that you want to do to Tyson's face that can be called "ticky-tack."
But you can't. Play tough and dumb between games to the media. We're cool with that. But play tough and smart between the lines once the ball goes up. You've done it your entire career, so we're not likely telling you anything you don't already know.
3. Russell Westbrook could be thisclose to a huge game.
He took in rightful criticism for his decision-making off the screen-and-roll in Game 1, as he missed 12 of 15 shots and saw good jumpers spin out. But those jumpers will likely be there again, despite Jason Kidd's guile and smarts, and the Mavs better be ready for a potentially confident and dangerous Russell Westbrook heading into Game 2. Pair that with the probably-there Durant, and you've got trouble.
This means the onus is on Westbrook, though. He has to be as quick and as aggressive as he was in Game 1, but with a little bit of exacting tone and execution if he wouldn't mind. He's never going to completely absolve himself of criticism because if he averaged 15 assists per game from here on out all the way to a championship, there would be people like me telling other media members that they've ruined him and that Oklahoma City will need him to score a ton moving forward.
But it's just another big step in public for this fantastic 22-year-old point guard that Ryen Russillo reminded us two days ago is just five years removed from being a freshman year nothing.
4. Scott Brooks has other options on Dirk.
Watch, from BBallBreakdown:
5. Understand that this could be the start, or this could be it.
For those of us who grew up with the Pistons having to get past the Celtics, then the Bulls having to get past the Pistons, there is a tendency to assume that each up-and-coming playoff team will be the same, multiplied by 1.25, the next season. A group like Oklahoma City, which went from surprise first-round combatant to four wins away from the finals in a year, would seem to be a prime example.
But there's no guarantee. The lockout could change everything. Anyone writing the Lakers off (what if they get inspired under Brian Shaw and get it right for once?) is a ninny. What if the Spurs were to trade for someone like Andris Biedrins? What if the Warriors (looking for some addition by subtraction in putting the ball in Stephen Curry's hands) trade Memphis native Monta Ellis back home for Rudy Gay, a move that could both energize or destroy both teams? What if the Blazers blow it up and give everyone a nice part as a result? What if the hard cap sets in and we have dozens of trades to follow?
Or, what if things continue apace? Even then, no guarantees.
So Dallas and Oklahoma City need to understand just how special this chance is. We saw nothing that indicated otherwise in Game 1, but we might have a week and a half left in these series and anything can set in.
So dig in. With guns blazing.