2011 NBA Western Conference Finals Preview

Earlier we broke down the Eastern Conference Finals, so now, the West.  This matchup is obviously a very stark case of old vs young, the Thunder with no starters over 26 against the Mavericks with no starter younger than 28.  A young athletic team which fundamentally changed after the deadline vs an old, wily zone playing team which has been relatively stable all year.  So, what do we think of it?  As always, cited rankings are from our power rankings.

Western Conference Finals: Dallas Mavericks (7th overall, 6th since March 1) vs Oklahoma City Thunder (9th overall, 3rd since March 1)

As mentioned previously, of the final four teams, Oklahoma City is the team who fundamentally changed the most from before to after Match 1.  This is because of the trade which brought in valuable big man depth in Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed.  Moreover the trade moved Jeff Green and allowed Serge Ibaka to play more and gave James Harden an increased role, which as can be gleaned from his late season split stats, he has seriously responded to.  For OKC, the present does not resemble the resent past.

Mavericks offense vs Thunder defense: Earlier in the year, this would have been a bit of a mismatch.  Before the deadline, the Thunder were 16st in defense, showing both mediocrity in defending shots (16th in TS% defense) and preventing chances (18th).  However, with the increased roles for Harden, Ibaka as well as the new guys, the defense has really stepped up to 5th overall since March 1.  Almost all of the improvement lies in improving shot defense with the TS% leaping up from 16th to 5th.  This is just a matter of defending two pointers better and three pointers better.  Prior to the trade which changed so much, the Thunder were allowing teams to shoot 47% from the floor, 21st in the league.  Since the deal, that is down to a stingy 43.8%.  Similarly, a team which allowed teams to shoot nearly 37% from three point land clamped down on that end as well.  They already were a good team at preventing three point attempts, so this further drove things down.  The Thunder with this added emphasis on defense has also fouled more as part of the physicality.  The ballhawking has improved, but the defensive rebounding is 18th and has not been improved by the trade.

Dallas has Dirk Nowitzki, and we know what a metronome of consistency he is.  The Mavericks have been consistent most of the season, their 8th place finish in offense is pretty indicative of the club they are.  Sure they lost Caron Butler early in the season, but aside from a blip when Dirk was out, they have been the team they always are.  The Mavericks, above all, are a jump shooting team.  Dirk is one of the great jump shooters who ever lived, and Jason Terry is an adept jump shooter.  They take a lot of 3s, (5th in the league in frequency) and shoot it reasonably well (indeed, it’s the only shot Jason Kidd takes these days).  They are a jump shooting team, so they do not get to the line much at all (27th).  Thus their TS% lies in their ability to shoot – if you leave them open as the Lakers did again and again, they will make them.  The nice thing for Oklahoma is that they are old, and old teams want to get back on defense, so the Mavericks are 24th in offensive rebounding.  Combine that with pedestrian turnover numbers and Dallas is very poor at generating looks.  The current version of the Thunder is no great shakes at shot prevention, but it might not matter the way Dallas plays.

Guarding Nowitzki is going to be a chore for the Thunder – Ibaka seems like the best athletic match, but he might be too young for Nowitzki’s moves.  However, the Thunder with their athleticism outside could give the Mavericks a lot of trouble with ball pressure.  If they can control the glass, they could make some hay.  What will be tricky for Oklahoma City is going from Memphis, a team who takes fewer 3s than anyone to the comparative “let if fly” mentality of the Mavericks.  The Thunder should be able to get a lot of turnovers off this team, and it might offset Dirk’s brilliance.  Edge: Thunder

Thunder offense vs Mavericks defense:  The Thunder took off offensively as the season progressed finishing 2nd in offense after March 1.  They were 2nd in TS% combining a fairly sound shooting percentage with an amazing ability to draw fouls.  The Thunder down the stretch were the 2nd most frequent FT takers in the league and they were the most frequent FT takers overall.  Russell Westbrook with his speed and willingness to throw his body into the pile and Kevin Durant with his rip move augment their skill with getting to the line a lot.  The Thunder seem punchless offensively, but as James Harden has grown as a floor spacer, the three point shooting is decent and their foul drawing ability helps minimize empty trips down the floor.  Befitting a younger team, they also led the league in recovering misses, so they generate extra chances when they do miss.  In a way the Thunder employ a Sherman tank collision oriented approach.  With the Mavericks little guards, the Thunder will have a lot of chances to attack.

The Mavericks use wile more than physicality.  Dallas will try to cover for its guards by playing a ton of zone, more zone than any team in the league, and it could frustrate a young team.  The zones keep the game outside.  Dallas did a good job forcing tough 2 point shots.  Their zone covered the 3 point line well, allowing the 6th fewest 3PA per attempt in the league, while also being 4th in fewest FTs against.  The Mavericks are a low contact outfit that funnels stuff towards Tyson Chandler and his tremendous shot erasing ability at the back.  Like a wily older zone team, the Mavericks do not force a ton of turnovers with this conservative approach, and they rebound misses solidly – though I imagine their zones make it hard sometimes hence the 12th place rank.  Their shot prevention is not great (18th) but their TS% defense is a solid 8th.

Can the Thunder get inside Mavericks zones and let their athleticism take over.  It could be a free throw contest or volleyball game at the net if the Mavericks are not careful.  On the other hand the Mavericks are so experienced and their zones so unlike what the Thunder have encountered over two rounds, it might take a while for the kids to adjust.  For the short term at least, the edge goes to the Mavericks but just slightly.

Two Keys to the Series

  1. For the Mavericks, can the zone keep the athletes of the Thunder from getting in?  The Thunder draw a ton of fouls, but the Mavs don’t commit many.  The Thunder go to the rack a lot and crash the boards, the Mavericks zone and junk defenses keep teams puzzled about how to enter.  Over seven games, can a young team crack the puzzle?  Dallas will have to limit the damage on the offensive boards in order to make the Thunder an outside team, something they do less effectively.
  2. For the Thunder, can they cover the threes and all the jump shooters.  In a way Dallas is frustrating in that they lean on the shots that a defense likes to give up.  Memphis pounded it inside, Dallas resolutely will not.  Can the Thunder make this switch effectively while not getting lazy about affairs around their basket?

Like the Eastern finals, this is a razor close series – all the cliches are there.  Youth, experience, guile, physical skill.  Is it Oklahoma City’s time?  I’m going to say yes.  Thunder in 6

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