This year’s Western Conference Finals matchup between the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder is the epitome of a classic battle: enthusiastic, lively youth versus seasoned, somewhat proven experience.
Because a definitive favorite hasn't been pushed through by the national media (see: L.A. Lakers in the 2nd round), the only thing that anyone can agree on here is that the battle lines have been drawn, and that the cast of characters is as captivating as they are -- for the most part -- likable.
In one corner you have Dirk Nowitzki, a war-tested generational talent with the scars to prove that he has triumphed over disappointment. He's never once stopped fighting since coming into the league in 1998, which would have been easy to do after he lost the 2006 NBA Finals with his team up 2-0. Jason Kidd -- one of the greatest point guards in the history of the sport -- stands by his side, always ready to provide more of the leadership and immeasurable intangibles that have helped transform this Dallas club into a mentally solid, infallible unit.
Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson -- $5 dollar bill tattoo and moronic tendencies notwithstanding -- and Shawn Marion are all tested veterans, tired of losing, ready to utilize maturity and experience in their effort to secure the championship trophy that has been eluding them for their entire careers.
And on the other side, you have Kevin Durant. Backpack adorned and a stoic look on his face, the reigning league scoring champion looks like a high school kid who’s perpetually late to homeroom. The lanky forward is the single biggest obstacle standing between Mark Cuban and the championship that he so desperately pines away for.
Beside Durant is his erratic consigliere, Russell Westbrook. Living and dying by a “shoot first, ask questions later” mantra that has kept him in every NBA-related postseason discussion of 2011, the former UCLA standout isn’t immune to criticism, but he doesn’t let it cramp his style either. He’s a mild-mannered, goofy-looking 22-year-old with dumb glasses by day. But by night, Westbrook is the high-flying floor general of the fiercest young mob in the Association.
The rest of Durant and Westbrook’s young posse is filled out by the easy-to-root-for Serge Ibaka, world-traveling Thabo Sefolosha, beard-masquerading-as-a-human James Harden and eternally scowling Kendrick Perkins.
These are the two teams that have emerged from the royal rumble that claimed the seasons of the San Antonio Spurs, Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, etc.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine a better way to surf into the last round of conference postseason play than coming off the sweep of the two-time defending champions, but that is precisely what Dallas is doing. After absolutely annihilating the Lakers in four seemingly easy games, Nowitzki and the gang will pose the same problems for Oklahoma City as they did for L.A.
Dirk, contrary to ridiculous accusations of wilting under pressure or being irreparably soft simply because he thrives on an outside game, is an unstoppable force. In fact, a point could be made that the ex-MVP is the best player on the floor when the Mavs take on the Thunder Tuesday night. As a point of reference, Durant is averaging just a tick under 29 points per game while Nowitzki has been good for 26.5 during the playoffs. The latter, however, has been getting his points more efficiently and has a higher three point percentage to boot. Dirk also pulls down one extra rebound per game.
And when Nowitzki is on, man, the whole Dallas team is on. He frees up the shooters on the wings to do damage, keeps the bigs in charge of defending against him from loitering into the paint and clogging up the lane, and preoccupies the attention of the other team’s coach enough to keep them from effectively strategizing against the rest of the team (see: Phil Jackson). Noting that he is unstoppable was no exaggeration, it was a mere observation.
In the past, teams could count on the mounting pressure to somehow throw Nowitzki and his bunch off their game, but the massacre of the Lakers killed any notion that this team wasn’t ready for the big leagues. Now, with the proverbial monkey off their backs, this squad is everyone’s worst fear, mentally and physically.
Kidd’s importance to this series cannot be understated. On paper, he looks all but dwarfed by the statistics of his much younger, much quicker opponent. Per 36 minutes, the only field where the two players are even remotely comparable is in the assists category, and even then, the fact that they draw even is a charge against Kidd.
Nevertheless, as he made abundantly clear in the second round, Kidd just knows how to make a difference. He knows how to get under the skin of even the most elite of players like Kobe Bryant. He knows how to make the right pass that will lead to the right pass that will lead to a shot, even if it doesn’t translate into a boost in stats. He knows how to win. And while Westbrook may run circles around the guy who he probably idolized growing up for 45 minutes, with the game on the line, Kidd, with his unparallel wisdom, may be able to give his team what the wet behind the ears Westbrook simply cannot.
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss this series without mentioning Durant. He is the chosen one, the backpack toting second coming who unlike his counterpart in the Eastern Conference, rises to expectations. As he showed by throwing down 39 points on the Grizzlies in a Game 7 that his team absolutely had to have, he isn’t intimidated by the bright lights of a big stage.
The behemoth of a challenge of guarding Durant will fall on the shoulders of Stevenson, most likely. He’s the only player in the regular rotation that has the athleticism -- but lacks the length -- to keep up with the Thunder superstar, though his effectiveness will remain to be seen. Marion, five years ago, may have had a shot against Durant. Now, at 33, Marion’s days of lockdown defense are far, far behind him.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Mavericks employ the zone sporadically over the course of the series, something that worked moderately well for them during the regular season.
Regardless, much like Nowitzki, if Durant wants to go off, he’ll go off. It’s just a matter of what the rest of the team does that will dictate whether that explosion results in a win or loss for his club.
The reason that this series has been so hotly debated, so difficult to handicap is because of how strong both of these teams are. To pick one would be to underestimate the other, and that’s just not something anyone is prepared to do. Not after everything that these squads have proven.
Durant vs. Nowitzki. Westbrook vs. Kidd. Harden’s stupid beard vs. Stevenson’s idiotic tattoo. Whatever your favorite matchup coming into this series is, you will undoubtedly get your money’s worth Tuesday night.
Game 1 kicks off at 9 p.m. eastern time, 6 p.m. pacific.