Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Duel of the Fates

On a cool, crisp Monday evening in Oklahoma City back in December, my friends and I embarked from our hotel room onto the streets of OKC. It has become a yearly winter ritual with my closest friends, embarking on the 180-plus miles up Interstate 35, over the Red River and into Sooner country for Mavericks at Thunder. Our first trip was a success in 2009, as Dirk dropped 35 and 11 on 18 shots with Dallas dominating the second half and winning 100-86. That Oklahoma City team was still ripe, learning how to put the pieces of their talented roster together to become what would eventually be an 8th seeded team that pushed the defending champion Lakers to six games in the playoffs.

But on this December night in 2010, the stakes were different. Oklahoma City was now established, a 50-win season under its belt and Russell Westbrook taking to next step. Dallas was the old team looking revitalized after another April embarrassment, thanks to Tyson Chandler and a full-training camp's worth of Caron Butler. I won't lie, the OKC road trip isn't just for basketball. There is some serious bro bonding that would make a Sig Ep shed a single tear. We had drinks. We fit eight college seniors into a two-bed hotel room to save cash. I refrained from taking part in too much of my beloved Jack Daniels before we ventured to the arena. Don't get me wrong, I love having an adult beverage at a sporting event just as much as the next guy, but I needed a clear head. I needed to see if something deep in the bottom of my stomach were true.

I needed to know if the Dallas Mavericks were the best team in the NBA


The Thunder and Mavs are almost so much opposites that they're similar. Seriously. One fan base is spoiled with talented riches that are not only on average as old as a college senior, but also successful. Unless there are some big Shawn Kemp fans in Oklahoma City, these fans have had three seasons. Two 50 win seasons and one losing season. Dallas on the other hand, has had it's fair share of peaks and valleys, with each low and high point being the absolute ends of the spectrum. Teams with wins in the teens all the way to a Finals birth. One fan base is tortured to seemingly be forever cursed to never win it all for as long as the current roster stands. The other fan base is naively enjoying the best of all that can be enjoyed with basketball, not knowing anything but success and being thrilled to be apart of the ride and a long ride it looks to be. Truth is, if OKC bowed out in even four games in this WCF, I doubt the Thunder fans would actually be that upset. "Wait, we went to the Conference Finals after picking third in the draft two years ago?! YES!" Maverick fans however, would curse and rage until next season starts, an undeniable feeling of the proverbiale window finally snapping shut on the franchise's greatest player of all time.

The polar opposites continue to the actual teams in battle that do the same thing but in different ways. Both team's MVPs get their points primarily off jumpers and free throws. Except Kevin Durant is a face up nightmare, with a variety of dribble moves and curl downs off down screens to snap off that quick release and force defenders to only foul to stop him. Dirk Nowitzki on the other hand, has almost primarily gone to work with his back to the basket, using his footwork, head fakes and ball fakes to free up space, knock down that one-legged fading jumper or get fouled. Both teams rely on their point guards to keep the offense humming. Russell Westbrook does it by relentlessly attacking the basket with no fear or hesitation. Jason Kidd shies away from lay ups whenever possible, transitioning his basketball skills to  become a marksmen from three and able to turn Brandon Haywood and Tyson Chandler into double digit scorers with his passing.

Both have benches where the sixth man is often the key to each team's success. Both six men take the spot of a defensive two guard whose only job is to shut down the team's best perimeter scorer for about 10 minutes a game. 

Some will say the only difference in these teams will be experience and that's why the Mavericks will prevail. Experience is slightly overrated. Did experience lead the Grizzles over the No. 1 Spurs? Did experience lead the Warriors to stun the Mavericks? Did experience rush Dwight Howard and the Magic to the NBA Finals? Did experience allow Dwyane Wade to become Bennett Salvatore's favorite player? (I kid, I kid.)

The reason the Mavericks or the Thunder will win this series is the same reason every NBA team ever wins a playoff series -- match ups, match ups and match ups.


Already settled into my seat in the Oklahoma City Arena, I watched what many Maverick fans usually expect the Thunder to do to them every time: run circles around them. Durant scoffed at the notion he was being guarded by DeShawn Stevenson as he rained in jumpers over him. Serge Ibaka was swatting shots into the fifth row. Hell, even Jeff Green was taking advantage of Dirk's limited perimeter defense. 

Luckily, the Mavs had Dirk. Both teams swayed with runs back and forth. Dallas would make a push for a five point lead, the Thunder would push right back to be up four. Then, late in the second quarter, Dirk drilled a one-legged fade. Banked it off the glass after getting fouled on top of it from a bewildered Green. But something went wrong. Dirk's landed off that jumper over 1,000 times. Probably a million times by now. But this time, his knees buckled. His weight crashed down on his knees as he twisted in pain, falling to the floor. 

From our nose-bleed seats, we couldn't tell it was his knee at the time. We all assumed it was another sprained ankle and when Dirk gingerly got to the line to still make the free throw, it was also assumed that Dirk was fine. The game went to half tied at 56. Waiting in line to get myself a Bud Light (probably priced at $9) my friend Robert told me the news.

"Dad just texted me. Dirk out in second half with a sprained knee."


My biggest qualm with this series is how quickly some people are throwing out the regular season meetings between these two teams. Most notably, the defense the Mavericks have played on Russell Westbrook. I've read about 500 times in the last five days that "the Mavs have no answer to Russell Westbrook." Except they've had an answer. Every single time they've played against him, they've had an answer.

Westbrook is a career 37 percent shooter against Dallas. If you think that's hindered by his poor shooting rookie season, he's a 31.8 percent shooter this season. Jason Kidd might only be able to catch Russel Westbrook if 2002 Jason Kidd returned but 2011 Kidd is just as smart. Kidd goes under every ball screen and forces Westbrook to shoot a 15-20 foot jumper. The Mavericks can live with that. It also won't just be Kidd that forces the action on Westbrook. DeShawn Stevenson has been announced as starting on him with Marion likely getting some spot time as well. 

But probably the biggest underselling of this series is the impact of Tyson Chandler. While I doubt Chandler will replicate the his season averages of 12.7 points and 15.5 rebounds against the Thunder with no Green or Nenad Krstic on board, don't underestimate the power of a free roaming Chandler.

Think of it this way. Chandler's last three playoff opponents have been LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. Now it'll be Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. No disrespect to those two fine players at all, but Chandler is now set loose. He is free to roam the paint and do what he is best at: help defense. Chandler's ability to meet Westbrook at the rim was a big reason why Westbrook shot so poorly against Dallas all season.

Those are really the keys. Everything else is pretty much settled. Dirk will go off. Durant will go off. Both Eric Maynor and James Harden and J.J. Barea and Jason Terry will have their moments. This series boils down to Chandler's ability to protect the rim without a low post scorer to check and the crunch time play of Westbrook and Jason Kidd. If the Mavericks fall back into their earlier turnover demons, this series could turn quickly for OKC. I put my faith into Kidd, he's done it so far.


Without Dirk, the third quarter looked bleak. The Mavericks offense had been diluted down to Marion post ups and Caron Butler jumpers. Durant was cooking and Kidd's three point shot was off. When the third quarter horn sounded, I slumped in my chair. The Mavs were only down two, but how long could they realistically hold on in OKC without Dirk?

The fourth quarter got underway with multiple missed shots for both teams. You could tell each team wanted to have that lockdown fourth quarter, the kind that leaves no doubt who the better team is. The Mavs zone enticed the Thunder to shoot from the outside. And they continued to miss. Jason Terry then remembered that quarter number four was the quarter he was allowed to make shots. JET and Butler continued to put in just enough points as the rest of the team blanketed the Thunder with their defense. As I danced in my aisle among some disgruntled OKC fans, I caught some things I would always remember -- Terry antagonizing the crowd and Butler slamming the ball at half court in celebration. These Mavs are different. No other Mavs team would come into this environment, against this team and win without Dirk, I thought to myself.

As I walked through the tunnel that went from the OKC Arena to our hotel, my friends were drunk with happy. Or drunk with drunk. Either way, the Maverick euphoria was all over. I walked quietly in the back. One thought was racing through my head:

The Dallas Mavericks are the best team in the NBA

Mavs in six.

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