Thinking back about the Western Conference Finals from a year and a half ago, you wonder if more time hasn’t passed since then. The Oklahoma City Thunder are surging at the top of the NBA, while the Dallas Mavericks are just hoping to get above .500.
The Thunder have the Mavs’ number, after sweeping them in the postseason last year and beating them 111-105 in overtime three weeks ago. In that game, Russell Westbrook finished with 16 points, including 8 in overtime, while struggling to contain his former UCLA teammate Darren Collison (scoring 32 points). When asked after the game about the matchup with Collison, Westbrook walked out in the middle of it, not liking questions about his defensive frailties.
Since then, it’s been a better road for Westrbook, with the Thunder winning their past five games, including beating the Denver Nuggets 117-97 on Wednesday, Westbrook leading the charge with 32 points. He’s averaging 34 points on the last two wins by the Thudner, feeling very comfortable with his shot while looking very focused, for a change, on defense.
The key for the Mavs is Dirk Nowitzki finding his form once again. After missing most of the start of the season, Dirk’s return coincided with a terrible losing streak that had the Mavs falling to 13-23. Since that game, Nowitzki has returned to the starting lineup, and the Mavs have won four straight games, including a win over Houston on their last outing, as Nowitzki scored 19 points to lead his team in scoring.
Last time the two teams met Nowitzki, fresh off his injury return, didn’t want the ball in crunch time, not feeling confident enough. After scoring 17 points or more on six of his last eight games, it’s safe to assume that won’t happen again.
Regardless of Westbrook’s defensive focus and Nowitzki’s improving form, Kevin Durant, averaging 32.4 points during the five game win streak the Thunder are on, is the key man in this game. There’s no stopping him, not completely, not even on Shawn Marion’s best day. Making him work harder to get his points, which means quick switches on the screens for his shots and someone covering as he does his run to the left, getting by the entire defense, might make it a more interesting and fairer fight.
The way the Thunder’s big men match up against the size of Dallas, meaning Elton Brand, Chris Kaman and Nowitzki’s ability to draw either Perkins or Ibaka away from the basket might be the factor that decided who wins this game, as games in Dallas are usually hard on the Thunder, even if they win.