The 66-game regular season, mercifully, is over. The NBA jam-packed 66 games into a space where 50 usually went, and the result was a strange five-month run that had us talking about rested legs and oddball rotations more than we spoke of learning and growing and all that typically mindful stuff that comes to our heads when discussing the NBA. The playoffs start on Saturday, though, and the brains behind Ball Don't Lie are ready to break down the first-round matchups.
We start with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks.
From your pal, Kelly Dwyer
Hey. It's Kelly. That wasn't fun, was it? The silly lockout, the terrible season, the Dwight Howard. It's OK, though. It's over now. That is a bird chirping in the distance, I made a pretty good sandwich for your lunch and we don't have anything to do when you get home from work but watch a series of basketball games played by players that are rested, well-instructed and mindful of what town they're in.
You're going to feel better now. Your pal insists on it.
Since December, all we've thought about when it came to the defending champion Dallas Mavericks was spring. Whether it was in the offseason, when they passed on re-signing Tyson Chandler in order to secure payroll flexibility or during the team's six-game winning streak in mid-February, or when it opened the season with a string of blowout losses, or even when it cut ties with a disappointing Lamar Odom last month … it was all about spring. How the team would be able to utilize a deep, versatile roster under the brilliant guidance of coach Rick Carlisle to adapt on the fly, with potentially seven games spread out over nearly two weeks. How it could work the old magic, the same see-what-it's-like matchup attack that it used to put together an earned championship in 2011.
And then they got the Thunder. Aw, crap.
The Thunder are reeling, splitting their final 14 games after peeling off a six-game winning streak of their own last month, handing the San Antonio Spurs the West's top seed as a result. And while Dallas didn't exactly have its way with Oklahoma City in last year's playoffs, it did down Scott Brooks' young team in the conference finals. This is a winnable series for Dallas. They all are.
Doesn't mean there's a win, there. Dallas' defense has fallen off recently, and though OKC only managed 95.2 points per game against the Mavericks this year (the Thunder took the season series 3-1), the team is probably too potent to hold down in time to take four wins in seven attempts. Dallas' ever-shifting defensive alignments can constantly confuse and conspire to keep the Thunder on edge, but this almost feels like a coronation to me. Perhaps I'm leaning too heavily on the sportswriter side of things -- the young bucks have to go through their previously victorious foe on the way toward the ring -- but don't you get that feeling? Even in early spring?
[Dan Wetzel: NBA players should want answers for union's controversy]
Feels like it to me, at least. Anything can happen with Rick Carlisle's big brain, but it almost feels like the Thunder are the lone team that his clipboard can't counter. Which is a bit of a bummer, because it would have been nice to see the Mavs peel another run off. To play more than the 72 games I have them marked off for.
It feels like it's time for the Thunder to start something big, though. We're thinking "summer," with these kids.
Thunder in six.
'Deep Thoughts' and Cheap Thoughts with Dan Devine
For every postseason matchup, Ball Don't Lie's resident dummy will offer a topically appropriate entry from the best-selling series of "Deep Thoughts" books written by legendary humorist Jack Handey, plus some of his own original thoughts on the playoff series. The combination will cost you literally nothing; we suggest you use the savings to purchase one of Mr. Handey's life-changing books.
No. 2 Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 7 Dallas Mavericks
"We like to praise birds for flying. But how much of it is actually flying, and how much of it is just sort of coasting from the previous flap?"
The Oklahoma City Thunder enter the postseason with a sterling 47-19 record and a newly crowned three-time scoring champion that's become the belle of the NBA ball over the past couple of years. They own the NBA's second-most efficient offense, pouring in just under 110 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and pair it with a top-11 defense that's made a significant jump from last year's middle-of-the-pack unit. They made their first significant postseason run last year, falling to the eventual champion Mavericks in the Western Conference finals; it's just sort of generally assumed that they'll continue to matriculate the ball down the field this year, earning an NBA Finals berth that seems to be their birthright and possibly even winning the O'Brien.
So why does it feel kind of like the Thunder have been "coasting from the previous flap" for a while now?
Scott Brooks' team is 20-12 since the All-Star break, which would seem just fine if it hadn't been 27-7 before and hadn't gone a teetering 8-7 in April to close the season. Granted, all seven losses came to playoff teams — the Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers (twice), Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets. And while April was the Thunder's cruelest month, it did begin with a marquee win over the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls, capping off a six-game winning streak that included takedowns of the Clips, Heat and Lakers in a span of eight days.
Plus, they're heading into the playoffs with home-court advantage against everyone except the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, and they were fantastic at the Chesapeake Energy Arena, winning 26 of 33 games there this season, including both matchups against Dallas (the Thunder took three of four from the Mavs during the regular season). To borrow and flip a phrase from Micheal Ray Richardson, the ship don't quite be sinkin'.
It is kind of listing, though. The Thunder finished the season with the worst turnover percentage (how often your time with the ball ends in a turnover) in the NBA, coughing it up on 15.3 percent of their possessions; they posted higher turnover possessions than their league-worst season average eight times in their final 15 games, and lost five of those games. Kevin Durant's shooting, while still fantastic, has tailed off a bit, coming in at 48.1 percent and 47.8 percent from the field in March and April after the MVP candidate hit more than half his tries through the season's first two-plus months. Russell Westbrook's shooting, on the other hand, has fallen off a cliff — the All-Star guard hit less than 39 percent of his shots in April and just 27.3 percent from long range.
James Harden's been cleared to play after sustaining a concussion when Metta World Peace elbowed him in the head, but you wouldn't be surprised if it took him some time to clear the cobwebs and knock off the rust of a missed week before becoming the same no-doubt Sixth Man of the Year he was before getting leveled. Derek Fisher's been getting 20 minutes a game and, as predicted, not doing too much with them. Oklahoma City continues to have massive late-game execution problems — they're not the same as last season, with Brooks seemingly content to run isolations for Durant or Westbrook while everyone else stood around, but as Sebastian Pruiti recently noted, they're still problems. You add it all up, and you see a Thunder team that, while correctly identified as among the league's elite, could be prone to buckle if pressed by an in-form, on-target opponent.
And Dallas could be that. If Dirk Nowitzki, who's dragged this team kicking and screaming toward contention in the second half after starting the season slow and out of shape, can reproduce the All-World effort he authored in last year's conference finals. If a rested Jason Kidd (who looked as good as he has all season in the six April games he did play) can keep the ball moving, slow the Thunder's guards just a bit, offer that great help defense and keep canning open 3-pointers. If Shawn Marion can make life difficult for whichever freakish OKC scorer he's checking from possession to possession. If Delonte West can continue his strong second-half scoring. If Westbrook's shooting struggles continue.
If, if, if, if, if. Alas, if Dallas could get everything going right for more than five consecutive minutes this season, they wouldn't have finished the season with a 6-7 April, a sub-.500 mark since the All-Star break and a gigantic drop in offensive efficiency (from 109.7 points per 100 possessions last year, eighth-best in the league, to just 103.3-per-100 this year, ninth-worst in the league).
Oklahoma City's vulnerable, but Dallas isn't good enough to take advantage often enough to win four games in seven tries. Even if the Thunder don't look like the world-beaters they were in the first half of the season, that last flap will carry them through to Round 2. They'd better get their wings moving if they want to go further than that, though.
PREDICTION: Thunder in six.
Five Predictions for Oklahoma City vs. Dallas, From the Sensible Eric Freeman
1. Last year's Western Conference finals will have little bearing on this series.
2. Russell Westbrook will take most of OKC's shots in crunch time, and thrive.
3. The Thunder will still lose one game due to horrendous late-game shot selection and play-calling.
4. The casual fan will start to wonder if last season's Dallas championship was the most random of the past 25 years.
5. Thunder in six.
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