#3 Dallas Mavericks vs #4 OKC Thunder:
This is a tough one to pick, because the Mavericks have been defying expectations all season with their new-found toughness, and the Thunder can range from unstoppable to extremely beatable depending on the mindset of Russell Westbrook. The Thunder really had to dig deep and band together to beat the Grizzlies, and that toughness should carry over to this series. Dallas on the other hand, simply out-executed an underperforming Laker team which lacked any sort of athleticism. That won't fly against the Thunder, who's lineup is made up almost entirely of extremely young, athletic players (Ibaka, Durant, Westbrook). They have also shown themselves to be a more disciplined defensive team than the Lakers were down the stretch, and it's hard to imagine OKC not rotating out to the plethora of outside shooters Dallas possess. Of vital importance is that OKC doesn't have the home-court advantage for the first time, and won't for the rest of the playoffs. Given how strong they are at home, this will make it all the more difficult for them to take home a championship. But let's break it down;
- Key matchups:
- Ibaka vs Dirk; Ibaka had the perfect warmup for Nowitzki in Z-Bo, whose fadeaway jump-shot is uncannily accurate and whose game doesn't rely on athleticism. Dirk is much the same, except that he's 7 feet tall and can shoot the 3-ball too. Ibaka needs to be aggressive in denying him to ball and not leave him open outside either. Dallas loves to run a pick and roll to get Dirk open, as most players have little chance of contesting one of his shots; however, OKC is in the unique position of having 3 players in their starting lineup who can contest a Dirk jumper in Ibaka, Perkins and Durant, so Dallas' options will be somewhat limited in the pick and roll due to OKCs length.
- Durant vs Marion: Marion is a great defender, and as a former PF knows how to defend taller and longer opponents, and there's no doubt he was watching Tony Allen and Shane Battier physically wear down Durant for much of the second round and turn him into primarily a jump-shooter. If Durant can be more aggressive in demanding the ball and getting open to receive it then OKC can win this one.
- James Harden: Harden has been outstanding off the bench for OKC in the role of spot-up shooter and playmaker from the SG spot to allow Russell Westbrook more freedom to score. He will likely be matched up with Jason Terry off the bench, and needs to use his superior size and athleticism to bother the Jet.
- J.J. Barea: Recovered from his ordeal at the hands of Andrew Bynum, Barea will once again be a decisive factor in this series, as one of the few Mavericks who can penetrate to create open looks for his teammates. Eric Maynor will attempt to slow him down, because he showed against the Lakers how effective he can be at just 5'9" with his lightning quickness, super-tight handle and toughness.
- Most interesting sub-plot: Dr Jekyll or Mr Hyde; which Russell Westbrook will we get? Game 7 of the last series showed Russell at his most effective; scoring when needed, but rebounding aggressively and most importantly, feeding Durant the ball early and often so he could get into a scoring rhythm. The resultant triple-double should be what Westbrook aims for every game for OKC to achieve the best results, but as we know, Mr Hyde sometimes suits up for the Thunder and goes trigger happy, especially down the stretch. Westbrook's decision making is the single limiter on how far this team can go this season and in the future, because if he doesn't figure it out, there's no way OKC can beat out a veteran team like Dallas or a star-studded lineup like Miami.