Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Series of the Week: Oklahoma City Thunder (2) versus Dallas Mavericks (7).

Editor's Note:  With the Playoffs in full-swing, we've decided to shelve the "Games of the Week" feature and do a "Series of the Week" feature instead.  These will be extended discussions on a particular team, player, theme or topic from a playoff series happening on a high-priced cable network near you.  First up: the Oklahoma City Thunder versus the defending champion Dallas Mavericks.

Whatever happens in this very entertaining first round series -- which the Mavs currently trail 2-0 -- will require us to rewrite the narrative of the 2012 Dallas Mavericks.

For the entire regular season, the Mavericks slowly eroded all of the goodwill they built up with NBA fans last year.  Once considered a team that was never going to be great enough to win a championship, and too preoccupied by past disappointments to overcome present hurdles, the Mavericks silenced those critics in dramatic and definitive fashion last June.  That team was unlike many championship teams we had seen before -- a collection of former All Stars, high profile role players, and a dynamic but flawed superstar.  Their win against the Heat wasn't just a statement about their team, which wasn't considered to be a title favorite when the 2011 season (or even the 2011 playoffs) began.  It was also a statement about what types of players can come together to win a championship -- old, steady veterans and young, dynamic role players -- and which teams, even though they're top-heavy with talent, cannot.  It was a signature series; one that makes us redefine how we watch basketball, and how we predict success.

However, the 2012 regular season forced those of us who had become liberated fans of the Mavericks to reconsider our stance.   The story is fairly well-known at this point.  The Mavs let most of their championship team walk, including two starters (Chandler and Stevenson) and an important "x-factor" off the bench (Barea).  They filled the gaps with talented but troubled veterans in Vince Carter, Delonte West and Lamar Odom.  And then they took the floor, with the goal of making the playoffs, but doing so with as little effort, cohesion or camaraderie as possible.  The real prize wasn't going to be another championship parade in Big D, but rather, cap flexibility in the offseason, so the organization could pursue marquee free agents like Dwight Howard and Deron Williams.

So when the playoffs began this weekend, I didn't have high hopes for the Mavericks.  How could I?  They were one of the few teams that I could tell, just by watching, that they weren't playing as hard as they could every single night.  Their superstar had had to shut it down in the middle of the season because he was too out of shape to play, and the guy who was slated to become their new "x-factor" had left the team after dealing with one of the stranger "personal reasons" seasons in recent memory.  Guys like Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and Jason Kidd used to give other teams fits...in 2003.  But in 2012?  Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who (depending on who you ask) are the favorites for the NBA championship?  Even Skip Bayless wouldn't attempt to be contrarian about this.  The Mavs would get demolished.

But then games one and two happened.  And though the Mavericks lost both games, it could've gone either way.  That nasty zone, which confounded the Lakers, Thunder and Heat on the way to the Larry O'Brien trophy, was suddenly back, and it was giving the Zombie Sonics fits.  Kidd and Terry were flashing out to the wings, jumping into passing lanes and preventing ball movement around the arc. Nowitzki and Marion frequently switched down low, taking away entry passes to Durant and Ibaka.  The Thunder looked flustered and harried; especially Durant, who in games 1 and 2, has shot a measly 34% from the field and registered a player efficiency rating of around 18.  Though Durant's wild shot in Game One sunk the Mavericks at the buzzer, and Westbrook's heroics were too much to handle in Game Two, the Mavs have literally been right there.  They do not look that removed from their championship days -- but they do look like they're missing players.  Indeed, they miss the players who played the specific roles needed to win four best-of-seven series against progressively more difficult competition.  In my opinion, that is the only reason the Thunder lead this series 2-0, and don't trail 0-2.

Though fate could prove me wrong, it does not seem that the Mavs will defeat the Thunder.  Oklahoma City is simply too talented, and the Mavs have been unable to find the firepower to contend with the Thunder's talented corps of athletic positional revolutionaries.  The conclusion of the season will bring up oft-asked questions that we must revisit given the Mavs' surprisingly competitive performance thus far.  Why didn't they resign Tyson Chandler?  Why didn't they replace gritty role players like DeShawn Stevenson and J.J. Barea with players of the same mold, instead of rickety Vince Carter and now-departed Lamar Odom?  Had they just kept the team they had, would they be a more legitimate threat to repeat?  They are the only team, in recent memory, that has been able to "turn on the switch" when the situation called for it.  Why didn't they keep the players that know how to best operate in that type of work environment, and would've given the Mavericks the best chance to succeed?

In any case, I look forward to at least two more spirited games between a team that knows what needs to happen to win a championship, and another team that is getting closer to figuring it out.

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