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Mavericks open defense of NBA title against talented Thunder

The Dallas Mavericks will begin defense of their NBA championship with a rematch from 2011 against the second-seeded Thunder.

Oklahoma City, winners of the Northwest Division, lost to Dallas in five games last year in the Western Conference finals.

"Well they're a great young team, we're a veteran team," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "We know the kind of capabilities they have as a team and we know what we have to do to play at our level. It's a great matchup. There's geographic interest. The teams are close together.

"We had a real intense series with them last year. It's a tough matchup, but we're looking forward to it."

OKC was pegged by many 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.

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 West finals, where they bowed out in five games to the eventual champion Mavericks.

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 figures to 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.

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.

Nowitzki, however, averaged 32.2 points against Oklahoma City in last year's playoffs, outplaying Durant, who just became the seventh player in NBA history to win three straight scoring titles.