2011 NBA WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS PREVIEW -- Mavericks in 7
Mavs vs. Thunder.
While -- yeah, I know -- I shoulda took my Mavs-over-Blazers first-round pick and quit while I was ahead, I predicted a Lakers' win the West semis and, happily, sheepishly, here we are in the NBA West Finals.
Totally different matchup for the Mavs than against the Blazers and Lakers. In short, the slower the pace the better. The Mavs can win. The Mavs should win.
But will they?
POINT GUARD -- Key to the series as far as I'm concerned. While Jason Kidd has to control the tempo and keep Dallas' half-court offense executing without turnovers in the teens, he's also got to find the energy to try to stay in front of Russell Westbrook. No one's been able to do that all year. Edge: Thunder.
SHOOTING GUARD -- Strange that the West's two best teams almost waste their time starting two guys at a key position who merely set the tone defensively and then find a comfy spot on the bench for most of the game. DeShawn Stevenson and Thabo Sefolosha won't be on the floor during crunch time, instead giving way to Jason Terry and James Harden. While he's in, Sefolosha will be more productive. Edge -- Thunder.
SMALL FORWARD -- We should see the best of Shawn Marion in this series. He's long, lanky and athletic, the perfect makeup to run in the open floor against the Thunder and to play defense on Kevin Durant. But even at his best, Marion can't stifle the two-time NBA scoring champ and his smooth, quick, long-distance shooting. Edge: Thunder.
POWER FORWARD -- Serge Ibaka will be the first of a handful of defenders OKC will throw at Dirk Nowitzki, none of which will stop the Mavs' leader from a series averaging around 30 points. Edge: Mavericks.
CENTER -- Kendrick Perkins brings a tough, often nasty defensive attitude to OKC's interior defense. But Tyson Chandler was third in the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year voting and is more skilled around the rim than any of the OKC bigs. Edge: Mavericks.
BENCH -- The Thunder count on points and energy from sixth man Harden, who can pressure a defense on the wing in transition or from 3-point range. While Nick Collison will present Dirk with a different look defensively and Eric Maynor is more of a stabilizing point guard than Westbrook, OKC's reserves are relatively harmless. For Dallas, Terry has been its second-best player in the playoffs and hit a record-tying nine 3-pointers in the close-out game against L.A. Peja Stojakovic, J.J. Barea and even backup center Brendan Heywood have provided positive minutes. Edge: Mavericks.
COACH -- Scotty Brooks was the NBA's Coach of the Year in 2010 and a former Maverick who played backup point guard to Jason Kidd in the mid-90s. Rick Carlisle has now taken three teams to the conference finals. Dallas' out-of-bounds set plays and late-game half-court execution is usually immaculate. Edge: Mavericks.
INTANGIBLES -- While the Thunder and its top four under-22 players may be here a tad prematurely, the Mavericks have a decided experience edge and have been the NBA's best team in the playoffs at 8-2, including 5-0 at American Airlines Center. I think Dallas' biggest hurdle is shaking off the rust of an uncomfortable nine-day layoff in Game 1. Edge: Mavericks.
PREDICTION -- Mavs' bandwagon chauffer Charles Barkley says the Mavs will win this series "and it won't be close." Of 30 personalities in the ESPN family of prognosticators, only seven -- including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Randy Galloway -- are picking OKC. ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson are also picking Dallas. Van Gundy: "I do believe Dallas will eventually win the series. I think it'll be a very difficult series, though, because of Westbrook, Durant and their strength inside. But I just really like how Dallas is playing at both ends, if the layoff doesn't impact them too much." Jackson: "I think the layoff is going to be a key factor in both Game 1 and Game 2. I think it's going to be a great series, and it's going to be extremely tough to call, but if Oklahoma wins one of these first two games, I see them gaining some valuable confidence and they're really going to make it a great series, which will go all the way to 7."
I just can't see this being an easy series. The Thunder have guys in Durant and Westbrook who can win a game all by themselves. And for what it may lack in late-game execution, OKC had the fifth-best free-throw shooting season in NBA history at almost 83 percent as a team. But in tight games in the closing minutes, I expect Dallas to operate more smoothly, efficiently and, ultimately, effectively. While the young Thunder are enjoying a drive-thru thrill ride, the grizzled Mavs are doggedly pursuing a long-term goal. Give me Mavs in seven.