By Bryan Murphy
Despite all of the injuries, losing 10 of 12 games back in March, and just about every analyst saying that the Dallas Mavericks would be borderline terrible this season, here they are as the 6-seed heading into the playoffs.
Dallas was able to avoid a match-up with the Spurs or Warriors but still have the daunting task of trying to get past the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round. The Thunder have probably two of the five or six best players in the entire league in triple-double machine Russell Westbrook and the NBA’s third leading scorer in Kevin Durant. Having to go against just one of those players in a playoff series is tough enough, but with both of those superstars healthy, the Thunder is right up there with the elite of the NBA.
There hasn’t been a single analyst or writer, picking the Mavericks to win this series. In fact, the best bet anyone is giving Dallas is to lose in five games instead of a sweep. But, that doesn’t mean winning this series and shocking the NBA world isn’t entirely impossible.
The Mavs once again will have to piggy back on 18-year veteran Dirk Nowitzki’s shoulders, who had another stellar season averaging over 18 points per game at 37-years-old. The Big German has had his share of battles with the Thunder in the playoffs and knows what his team needs to do to advance.
“Once the shot does go up and they take a tough shot, we got to make sure that they get on the glass and hold the rebound battle sort of close,” Nowitzki told the Mike & Mike Show on ESPN. “They’re obviously much younger and much more athletic in every position. If we make it a rap game we’re going to be in trouble.
The Mavericks absolutely must win the rebound and turnover battles. Dallas was one of the best teams this season in protecting the basketball but was notorious for struggling in the rebounding department especially against teams that have monsters in the paint. This Thunder team has those monsters in Steven Adams and Enes Kanter. The Mavs big men Zaza Pachulia, David Lee and Salah Mejri must hold down the paint all series long.
Mejri, the 29-year-old Tunisian rookie, has had some big moments in limited play this season. He’s also had some impressive blocks on both Durant and Westbrook. Mejri even went as far as to tell reporters this week that he thinks Westbrook and Durant will try to challenge him. “I don’t think they’re happy with me blocking their shots every time meet,” he added.
With the absence of Chandler Parsons, it will be interesting to see how much playing time coach Rick Carlisle will give Justin Anderson. The rookie out of Virginia has played a role in the team’s recent playoff push and change of play. Anderson has logged at least 20 minutes played in 10 of the last 11 games and he had only two such games before that stretch all season long. He brings youth and athleticism that this Mavs team desperately lacks. His high-flying defensive plays around the rim and high octane play have given Dallas a subtle spark that was much needed. We could very well see him and Wes Matthews splitting some time guarding Durant in this series.
The Thunder has been known to blow leads in the fourth quarter this season. But, Dallas will be without Parsons and maybe Lee, and who knows if Deron Williams will be healthy enough to go for an entire series. Don’t be surprised if Dallas finds themselves down by too much in some of these games to even exploit the Thunder’s fourth quarter struggles.
Although Nowitzki will almost certainly dominate Serge Ibaka near the low block like he has in recent history and J.J. Barea has been phenomenal lately, it still won’t be enough to match the firepower OKC has. Barring any other major injuries, the Mavs lose this series in five games.
Upcoming Schedule – All Times Central
4/16 @Thunder 8:30 pm
4/18 @Thunder 7:00 pm
4/21 vs Thunder 6:00 pm
4/23 vs Thunder 7:00 pm
*4/25 @Thunder TBD
*4/28 vs Thunder TBD
*4/30 @Thunder TBD