I can’t remember the exact game, but it was definitely December of 2008 and the Thunder were definitely something like 2-25.
And I was definitely a little bummed out.
I was at the game with my buddy Andy and as we watched what would inevitably become another Thunder loss, we fantasized about the future. We were still pretty shocked that we were even in Oklahoma City watching our very own professional basketball team, but the thought of the future was fun to talk about.
“Think about when they get good,” he said.
“Think about if they make the playoffs,” I said.
He shook his head. Almost impossible to even conjure up the thought. Then he took it up a notch.
“Man, think about like a Western Conference Finals series here in OKC. Wouldn’t that just be… insane?”
We both sort of just laughed. Yes it would be insane, especially because the team in front of us was a long way from it. We were watching Earl Watson and Robert Swift with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. We were watching a team that would eventually finish with 23 wins and use the lottery pick they got to take a bearded man named James Harden. There was no Serge Ibaka or Kendrick Perkins. No Eric Maynor, Daequan Cook or Thabo Sefolosha. Heck, Scott Brooks wasn’t even officially the head coach yet.
At the time, all of that future talk seemed so far, far away. Andy and I both grew up with Jordan’s Bulls, but some of our favorite memories of the NBA was watching the Western Finals with the Lakers playing the Blazers and Kings. That was some serious stuff. Intense games, wild crowds, huge moments. The kind of moments that last forever. The kind of moments you find yourself bringing up with friends 30 years from now.
We dreamed of our team having those moments. But back then, we figured we both might have gray hair and grandchildren before we got some.
And now look. The Thunder are in the Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Four wins away from the NBA Finals. Four! That group of 20-year-olds are just 22-year-olds. It’s like the Thunder skipped a step or something. No long suffering for us. The most we did was in that inaugural season and we were all too fired up to even care.
Even with that surreal turnaround, there was a sense of expectation in this postseason. After winning 55 games and having homecourt in the first round, beating Denver was expected. Then after OKC drew the Grizzlies instead of the top-seeded Spurs, advancing was supposed to happen again. Anything less, despite the pretty amazing season, would’ve been disappointing.
Finally though, the Thunder are playing with house money. Finally, the expectations for more have been shed. A series loss to the Mavs and nobody would dare call this season a disappointment. Disappointed? Of course. The season though would be a smashing success. Not to say that’s a license to lose, because obviously the team doesn’t give two craps about that, but I’m just saying, we’re all going home fairly happy no matter what now.
But here’s the thing: Even with that and even with the incredible transition we’ve seen over three years, an opportunity is here. The Mavericks are far from an elite team and the Thunder, whether we’re afraid to actually admit it or not, are very, very good. Championship good? At this point, why not?
I still can’t shake thinking back to dreaming of the Western Finals though. To actually be here, well, I can’t say I saw it coming. It’s the good life right now. Some teams go decades without being games like we’re about to watch. Sam Presti has tried to craft a roster that would be in these situations consistently for years to come. This was the plan, this was the vision. Just not so soon. Most everyone saw the Thunder as a couple years away last season when they made a surprising playoff run. Most saw them as being at least another year away this season when they claimed the four-seed heading into the playoffs.
But the Thunder don’t seem to operate on the same clock of all the prognosticators. They do things at their own pace, which happens to pretty darn fast. People are still going to say it’s too much too soon for this young group, that next year they’ll be ready. Well, next is here. Next is now.
The Mavs took the season series 2-1 over the Thunder. And to stress you out a bit, OKC’s win came while Dallas was down and out without Dirk and Caron Butler. Russell Westbrook hasn’t played well this season against the Mavs and KD hasn’t shot the ball that great. Of course the usual caveat goes here that the Thunder hasn’t played the Mavs since the Perk trade, so no Jeff Green on Dirk, but instead it’s Serge Ibaka.
If you remember that first meeting though where the Mavs won 111-103, the Thunder held a big fourth quarter lead and ended up being outscored 36-22 mainly because OKC couldn’t stop Jason Terry.
The Starting Five
PG: Russell Westbrook obviously has the speed, strength and athleticism edge on the 38-year-old Jason Kidd. But don’t doubt Kidd’s abilities. He’s turned himself into a knock-down 3-point shooter and can still find a man on a fast break as well as anyone. The edge goes to the Thunder here, but Kidd’s still got game.
SG: This matchup is really kind of funny. Thabo versus DeShawn Stevenson, or, the “not the actual shooting guard matchup.”
SF: Clearly Kevin Durant has an advantage over Shawn Marion, but The Matrix has a pretty solid history of defending KD well. Marion has long arms and while he’s not going to bully Durant near as much as Shane Battier or Tony Allen, he is going to do well at keeping KD out of the paint. However, Butler had the task of checking KD most of the time. According to Synergy Sports, Marion defended Durant on only nine of the 48 shot attempts KD took in half-court sets.
PF: No doubt Dallas has a pretty strong advantage with Dirk against whoever the Thunder throws at him. Because really, it doesn’t matter. Often the best defense on Dirk is just hoping he misses. Length sometimes works, so Serge Ibaka will obviously get the start on him. Dirk isn’t a bruising post player like Zach Randolph, so Ibaka will likely become more valuable in this series than Nick Collison. Still, you’re going to see a number of different things here I’m sure.
C: It’s OKC’s almost-center versus the new guy. Tyson Chandler versus Kendrick Perkins. An easy column for someone would be to look at who the Thunder would rather have, but either way, this is a defensive push. Perk isn’t going to have to necessarily defender Chandler like he was Nene and then Marc Gasol. It’ll be more about keeping Chandler off the glass. Which could be a challenge because of Chandler’s size and athleticism.
If you ask me, which you kind of are because you’re reading this, the series is going to be won by one of these team’s benches. Jason Terry and James Harden are both terrific X-factors off the pine. Nazr Mohammed is a solid veteran backup big man, sort of like Brendan Haywood. J.J. Barea is the often surprising point guard, much like Eric Maynor. Peja Stojakovic is the marksman, just like Daequan Cook. Collison though, I don’t think the Mavs have a Collison. Yeah, Brian Cardinal certainly fits the profile, but Cardinal doesn’t actually play and Collison is a lot better.
Whatever the case, the benches for both teams are going to be vital. Barea torched the Lakers, Terry was on fire from outside and Peja turned back the clock dropping 3s from everywhere. Harden, Cook, Collison and the crew are going to have to support the starting five well.
Five Important Questions
1. Can the Thunder defend the 3?
The Mavs took 23 3-pointers a game in the three meeting previous and shot 37 percent. Dallas hit a total of 26 3s in the three meeting, including 11 in the game Dirk was hurt. This is a change of pace in a big way because Memphis avoided the 3-point shot mostly, as they were last in the league in makes and attempts. The Grizzlies were great inside, while Dallas is a lot more like Denver in that they’re more jumpshooting oriented.
The Thunder have a different defensive structure now though in that because Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic are gone, OKC prefers not to double and dig down on players inside. The Thunder’s perimeter defenders can stay at home a bit more, not allowing all those open looks. Dallas is great at finding spaces to settle into for a shot though, so it’s about not losing track of your man if he slinks off to the 3-point line.
2. Who guards KD?
As I mentioned, Shawn Marion will likely get the start, but he didn’t defend Durant as much as Stevenson did during the regular season. While Stevenson might be a bit more suitable because of his quickness, the Mavs are in a bind here because Stevenson isn’t intended to play extended minutes. The Mavs want to avoid having Peja on Durant at all costs, so it’s likely going to be a combination of Marion and Stevenson.
I’m sure the goal for Scott Brooks is to work the matchups where he can go small and catch the Mavs forced to stick Dirk on KD. That would be an ideal play and something I’m sure Brooks is thinking about.
3. Who guards Dirk?
Serge Ibaka is going to get the start on Dirk, but it’ll be combination of him and Nick Collison mostly. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Durant on Dirk in long stretches either. Going small here could be a benefit to the Thunder because it’ll force Rick Carlisle to match up.
The issue with Dirk is that he’s going to get his looks regardless of who you put on him. The question comes down to if you’re willing to send an extra defender to try and get him to give it up. The Lakers tried that and Dirk willingly passed out of the double to wide open shooters. It most decidedly did not work for L.A.
4. How big a factor is the Mavs rest?
Obviously you’d rather sweep and have the opportunity to sit and watch for a week, but I do think there could be some signs of rust in at least Game 1 for Dallas. The Mavs were playing so ridiculously well against the Lakers and had an incredible rhythm going. Now all that had to be put on ice for a week. Teams are used to playing every other night. That’s the NBA season. So while the Thunder only have a day off, I think it’s more about not getting a chance to prepare and not as much about rest.
OKC will likely be in a bit better rhythm because the Thunder have been playing. Dallas may show some signs of rust, but the Mavs have had the opportunity to prepare.
5. How big a factor is not having homecourt?
I say very big. This is the first time this postseason the Thunder have had to start a series on the road. Against the Nuggets and Grizzlies, OKC had the luxury of preparing at home, sleeping in their own beds and then going to their own gym. Now, they’ve got to go on the road, even if it’s just a little ways down I-35.
It’s a different scenario because instead of focusing on holding serve, the Thunder now have to try and just steal a game in Dallas and take over homecourt. Coming back 1-1 is the plan, but it’s not over if it’s 0-2. A whole different mindset here.
Four Good Stats
1. Free throws are key for OKC, but against the Mavs, the Thunder got to the line almost five fewer times a game.
2. The Mavs outrebounding OKC on average 46.3 to 40.0 in the three games. The Mavs’s rebounding rate was 53.7 percent to OKC’s 46.3.
3. The Mavs are one of the best midrange shooting teams in the league and against the Thunder, things were no different. Against OKC, Dallas shot 48 percent from midrange.
4. KD against Dallas: 29.3 ppg, 52 percent from the field, 30 percent from 3 and six free throw attempts per game. His true shooting was 62 percent, his usage at 34.1 percent and offensive rating 104.1.
Three Talking Points
1. Is this the start of a rivalry?
Everyone is going to talking about this because of the proximity of the teams. My take? I don’t care. Everyone wants to force a rivalry, but to me, they just happen. If anything, the Nuggets are feeling more rival-ish than anyone because of all the smack talking that went on between the fans, and media.
2. The zone.
In that comeback the Mavs had in the first game, it happened mainly because of a zone Dallas employed that dared the Thunder to shoot. At the time, OKC was an awful 3-point shooting team. The Thunder are better now, but not consistent. A player like Daequan Cook could be important as well as Durant and Harden being on target. Dallas is going to try to use the zone, but it’s a matter if OKC can shoot them out of it.
Overrated in my mind. At this point, the Thunder have played 12 postseason games including a Game 7. Yes, they haven’t had Western Conference Finals exposure, but the pressure isn’t going to change. It’s going to be there regardless. Dallas is older, they’ve been here. The Thunder haven’t. But I don’t think that means as much as some might think.
First, let me say as a big fan of Dirk and sort of the Mavs in general, that I’m pretty thrilled that the winner of this series is playing in The Finals. That’s very cool to me.
That said, boy I hope it’s the Thunder.
It’s going to take four very good games from OKC to get it done. Dallas is a team that does its thing and does it very well. They shoot, they defend and they rebound. They have a crunch time player in Dirk and they have X-factor scorers littered throughout the rotation. Winning a game on the road will be a challenge, as will winning period.
The Thunder actually have a good number of favorable matchups on their end and can really force the Mavs’ hand in a few areas. It’s a matter of playing within their game and just making shots. The games OKC beat Memphis, the Thunder shot the ball well. Amazing how good the Thunder’s offense can look when the ball goes through the hoop.
I like OKC a lot in this series because I think Dallas will have a hard time containing Durant and controlling Westbrook. But something in me can’t shake that it really feels like it’s Dirk’s time. He’s playing at such a high level, as are the Mavs, that I can’t go against the hot team. The Thunder are going to be right in this series, but a Game 7 on the road isn’t easy to win. And I think that’s what it comes down to. Mavericks in seven.