The Oklahoma City Thunder were pegged to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals when the lockout was finally lifted and now they will get to work on their third straight postseason run.
The Thunder were once in the driver's seat for the conference's top seed until a slow start to April coupled with a resurgent San Antonio Spurs squad dropped them from the West's perch. Now owners of the No. 2 seed in the postseason playoffs, the Thunder will take their swings in the opening round against the seventh-seeded and defending champion Dallas Mavericks.
Oklahoma City captured just its second Northwest Division title since 2004-05 with a record of 47-19 and has made the postseason three times since the franchise relocated to the Midwest from Seattle prior to the 2008-09 campaign. Loaded with talent in All-Star Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder round out one of the most-feared lineups with Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and James Harden. Durant finished as the top scorer in the league once again and is looking forward to get down to business in the playoffs.
"Every year we've progressed," Durant said after Wednesday's defeat to Denver. "We lost tonight, but it doesn't mean we had a bad year by any means. To reflect on the year, there were ups and downs, that's what happens in this league, but we had a good year. We can't worry about what we did during the regular season, that's out the door. We have to get ready for the playoffs. I think we have another level that we can get to and a few days of practice are really going to help us out."
Imagining the Thunder reaching another level is pretty scary. Oklahoma City clinched a postseason berth in an April 1st win over Chicago and finished the season with a 26-7 home record and a 21-12 road mark. It had the second-best road mark in the West behind the Spurs and went 25-16 on the road a year ago in a full 82-game schedule. The Thunder were the fourth seed in last year's playoff run and made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where they bowed out in five games to the eventual champion Mavericks.
In 2009-10, the Thunder captured the eighth seed and were bounced in four games to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in round one. The Thunder received a scare this week when Harden took a violent elbow from Lakers tempestuous forward Metta World Peace (aka Ron Artest) and sustained a concussion, keeping him out the final two games of the regular season. Harden, a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, passed the NBA-mandated tests required for him to return and should be ready to go in time for the playoffs.
"We decided as a group to hold him out one more game and give him 24 more hours," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "He should be fine in our recovery practice tomorrow as a team and our practice Friday."
Meanwhile, the Mavericks are in the playoffs for a 12th straight season and will try to become back-to-back champions for the first time since the Los Angeles Lakers did it in 2008-09 and 2009-10. The Mavericks were the third seed a year ago and rolled through the playoffs by ousting the Blazers, Lakers and Thunder in the West, then defeated the Miami Heat for their first title.
Dallas, which is the first defending champion since the 2007 Heat to begin its title defense on the road, has an old roster and will struggle in this series against the younger, faster Thunder. Players such as Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki will be relied on heavily to keep the Mavs' title defense alive. Big man Tyson Chandler is no longer around and will support the New York Knicks in their playoff run, leaving inside duties to Brendan Haywood, who's average at best.
After Thursday's loss to Atlanta put the Mavs in the seventh spot, Kidd appears ready to go.
"The dress rehearsal's over," Kidd told the Dallas Morning News. "Now it's time for us to protect our crown."
The Mavericks ended the regular season losing four of six games, and dropped three of four matchups with the Thunder this season.
POINT GUARD: Many people say the Thunder won't win with Westbrook for some strange reason, and it's foolish to even think that. The durable Westbrook played in all 66 games this season, averaging 23.6 points, 5.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals. He hasn't missed a game in the four years he has been in the league, and has appeared in 23 playoff games (17 last season), averaging 23.0 points, 6.3 assists and 5.5 boards.
Kidd may be long in the tooth, but he knows how to distribute the basketball. The veteran point guard finally won a championship last year and averaged 6.2 points and 5.5 assists in 48 games this season. In 142 career postseason games (all starts), Kidd owns averages of 14.0 points and 8.6 assists. He may be a step or two behind Westbrook in speed and scoring, and that could be a problem. However, Kidd has the experience and plenty of knowledge to show the Thunder point guard a thing or two.
SHOOTING GUARD: Delonte West has some playoff experience from his days with Boston and Cleveland, appearing in 54 games (30 starts) and averaging 9.2 points and 2.9 assists. West is a scrappy player who won't light up the scoreboard and can play solid defense. Carter will also see action from this spot. West will try to contribute as much as he can in Dallas' title defense, and can get a bit chippy on the floor (ask Jazz guard Gordon Hayward). The Mavs will make sure West stays in check during the postseason run.
The Thunder don't necessarily strike fear with Thabo Sefolosha as a No. 2, but at least he can play some defense. He missed some time in the middle of the season because of injury and averaged 4.8 points and 3.0 rebounds through 42 games this season -- his fourth with OKC. The 6-7, 215-pound Swiss has played in 32 career postseason games (23 starts) and owns averages of 4.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 17.8 minutes. Keep an eye on Sefolosha this postseason in defense against opposing perimeter shooters.
CENTER: Perkins was upset for obvious reasons when he left his friends in Boston via trade to the OKC. While the Celtics are still competitive without the enforcer, Perkins has to be more happy playing for the Thunder, who are younger and have more upside than Boston. Perkins plays with a mean streak and can box out with the best of them. He stayed healthy all season, appearing in 65 of the 66 games on the slate, and recorded 5.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks. Perkins and Ibaka inside make a scary tandem, but the Thunder will be in trouble if any of the two fail to set the tone in the paint. Since Perkins joined the Thunder, they have gone 60-23 and his presence has kept opposing scorers honest. In 85 career playoff games (79 starts), Perkins has averaged 6.4 points, 6.7 boards and 1.4 blocks.
Dallas would have the edge down low if Chandler were on the team, but it will have to rely on Haywood. He has been to the postseason before with Washington and Dallas, and didn't do much in last year's championship run with averages of 3.1 points and 4.1 boards. He came off the bench in 18 postseason games a year ago and has appeared in 49 total with 24 starts. Haywood has the body to match up with Perkins, but not the skill set. Haywood has posted 6.7 points and 5.1 rebounds in the playoffs.
SMALL FORWARD: Durant is one of the top three players in the game and arguably the purest shooter. He just captured his third straight scoring title, becoming the first since Michael Jordan in 1995-1998. Durant averaged 28.0 ppg and 6.6 rpg in all 66 contests in 2011-12 and has averaged more than 20 points in all five seasons in the NBA. Defenses must protect the perimeter and watch an occasional drive to the lane by Durant, who is a dangerous weapon when paired up with Westbrook. The duo combined for 91 points against the Nuggets on Feb. 19 this season with Durant netting 51. Durant has started all 23 career playoff games, posting 27.7 points and 8.0 rebounds.
Marion has an irregular shot and it works for the veteran. He finished third on the team in scoring this season with 10.6 points and led the Mavs with 7.4 rebounds. Marion is a tough defender, but will be overshadowed by the sweet- stroking Durant. Marion played a healthy season, appearing in 63 out of a possible 66 games, and has started 92 career postseason contests. He is averaging 15.3 points and 9.4 boards in the playoffs, showing that he turns up his game when it really counts. He averaged 11.9 points and 6.3 boards during Dallas' run to the title a year ago.
POWER FORWARD: Nowitzki has put the Mavericks on his back for the past several seasons, and finally won an NBA title last year. The big German's numbers were down a bit this year, as he averaged 21.6 ppg -- the lowest since a 21.8 clip back in 2003-04. Nowitzki will once again be Dallas' big threat from both outside and in the paint, and has started all 124 playoff games in his career with averages of 25.9 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists. Health and stamina is always an issue for athletes, and Dallas will need both from its top scorer and team leader.
If any players decide to test their fate by driving the lane on Ibaka, they better be prepared to watch the ball get swatted into the stands. The block specialist is arguably Oklahoma City's best defender and averaged 9.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game in all 66 games this season. Ibaka hasn't missed a game in the last two years and serves as a strong compliment to the flashy Durant and Westbrook. In 23 career playoff games, 17 of which have been starts, the native of Congo owns averages of 9.3 points, 7.1 boards and 2.8 blocks. He was bothered by a hip issue earlier this season, but is back at full strength.
BENCH: Besides Harden, Oklahoma City's bench is pretty weak. Harden finished third on the team in scoring with 16.8 points and also averaged 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists. The bearded lefty should take home the top reserve award this season and has played in 23 career postseason games, posting 11.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists. Daequan Cook, Derek Fisher, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed will provide depth to the OKC bench and rest for the starters. Fisher has been to the postseason before, having won five NBA titles with the Lakers before switching sides during the season. Fisher, who was dealt to Houston but never showed up, has averages of 8.9 points and 2.6 assists in 209 postseason games (158 starts). He can also knock down a three in crunch time.
Dallas has a diamond in the rough coming off the bench in Jason Terry. Terry had a tattoo of the Larry O'Brien championship trophy etched in his biceps prior to winning it all and used that for motivation. The ink helped and now Terry is in line for another title run. He averaged 15.1 points per game this season, second to Nowitzki's team-leading 21.7 ppg. Terry, aka Jet, is also one of three players to average more than 30-plus minutes a game (Nowitzki, Marion) and has competed in 83 postseason games (45 starts), averaging 17.0 points. Another greybeard in Dallas' backcourt is former highlight-reel maker Carter. In his first season with Dallas, Carter appeared in 61 games (40 starts) and posted 10.1 points per game. In 56 playoff games, he owns 23.3 ppg. Lamar Odom would have been a nice piece off the bench, but he is gone, leaving Rodrigue Beaubois and Brandan Wright as the other main ingredients for Dallas' reserves.
COACHING: Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle is a no nonsense kind of guy who climbed to the top of the mountain a year ago. The former NBA player understands the grind and determination it takes to succeed in both the regular season and playoffs, and also is aware of how difficult it can be for some teams to repeat as champions. Carlisle, who won an NBA title as a player with Boston in 1986, has a 53-46 playoff record as a head coach and has the edge in this matchup simply because he's been there before.
Thunder head coach Scott Brooks is also a former player and the 2009-10 NBA Coach of the Year. Brooks has a lot of pressure riding on his team, but will not be overwhelmed with the high expectations. He was mentored by several well-known coaches in P.J. Carlisemo and George Karl, and will have to match wits with Carlisle in order to get out of the first round. It's not uncommon for a lower seed to knock off a seemingly formidable higher seed, so Brooks will have to outwit Carlisle in the X's and O's department. Brooks is 11-12 in the playoffs with OKC.
PREDICTION: Unfortunately for the Mavericks there won't be a repeat this season. Oklahoma City is much younger and more determined after an amazing season led by its two stars in Durant and Westbrook. It will be a grind for both teams with the Thunder squeezing out a series win in seven games. Dallas is still a dangerous squad heading into the postseason with Nowitzki, Terry and Marion spearheading the defending champs. The only problem is that Oklahoma City has fresh legs and more firepower.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: THUNDER IN 7