The Oklahoma City Thunder possess the league’s best 1-2 punch. Can the Dallas Mavericks counter it?
The Dallas Mavericks were fortunate to avoid the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2016 NBA playoffs, but it’s not like a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder is some sort of prize.
The Thunder don’t have Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP and clear front-runner for this season’s award, but they do have two guys who would be fighting over that distinction if this were just about any other year.
Kevin Durant was my pre-season choice for the MVP award, because I expected him to “go bonkers statistically while leading the Thunder to one of the best records in the league”. Obviously Curry and the historically great Warriors threw a wrench into that, but make no mistake, Durant did go bonkers statistically for the 55-27, Northwest division champion Thunder.
Durant put up 28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, and over a block and a steal a night while shooting 50.5% from the floor, 38.8% from deep, and 89.8% at the charity stripe. The list of other players in NBA history to average at least 28 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, and a steal per game for an entire season is short: Larry Bird (3x) and Michael Jordan.
Durant’s partner in destruction is no slouch, either. Russell Westbrook made some history himself this season, breaking Magic Johnson‘s record for triple-doubles in a single season with 18. He was just about two boards short a night of averaging one for the season, with 23.5 points, 10.4 assists, and 7.8 rebounds in 80 games. Add in his 2.0 steals per evening and those numbers put Westbrook on a list all to himself.
LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are great. Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, too. And there is certainly a case to be made for Curry and Klay Thompson, or Curry and Draymond Green. But considering all factors, Durant and Westbrook form the most devastating 1-2 punch in the league. So how do the Dallas Mavericks counter it?
First, they’ll need to get the most out of their role players. The Mavericks don’t have anyone on the same level as Durant or Westbrook, but they’ve been in this position before. Dallas defeated the Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals by getting big performances from their role players as a supplement to Dirk Nowitzki.
J.J. Barea has been huge for the Mavericks over the last few weeks, and he’s no stranger to the big stage. Rookie Justin Anderson has been a motivated, athletic addition to the rotation since Chandler Parsons went down to injury. And Salah Mejri has played well in three games against the Thunder this season.
Outside of Enes Kanter, who scores well but is a liability defensively, the Thunder bench is pretty bare. If Dallas can limit the impact and efficiency of Dion Waiters (14.8 points, 54.5% 3P against Dallas this season), and avoid big nights from some of the snipers on the OKC bench – ex-Mav Anthony Morrow can get hot in a hurry – while getting some production from their lesser knowns, they’ll have a chance of weathering an offensive barrage from Durant and Westbrook.
Another area the Mavericks have an advantage is the turnover department. Westbrook, for all his talent and experience, is still prone to careless mistakes. His 4.3 turnovers a night places him just behind James Harden for most in the league per contest, and Durant isn’t too far behind with 3.5 of his own a night. These two have the ball in their hands a lot, and errors are bound to occur, but the Thunder have blown many a fourth quarter lead this season and turnovers have consistently played a role. As a team, the Thunder are 26th in the league.
Dallas, on the other hand, is a veteran club which does well holding on to the rock. Their 12.8 turnovers a night were the second-fewest in the league this season. The peskiness of those Maverick role players, Barea and Anderson specifically, as well as the gritty defensive prowess of Wesley Matthews, could be effective in forcing OKC into mistakes and earning Dallas some easy opportunities. And in a close game, the difference in late-game savvy between the two teams bodes well for the Mavericks.
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The Mavericks certainly have the advantage in regards to coaching as well. Billy Donovan has been pretty good in his rookie season as an NBA head coach, but come on, he’s no Rick Carlisle. Carlisle has slowed the Mavericks down over the last few weeks, which has helped Dallas make their run, and will help to negate the Thunder’s speed and athleticism advantages. And he surely has more tricks up his sleeve to deal with OKC’s big guns.
Don’t get me wrong, there is more to the Thunder than Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Serge Ibaka remains one of the elite rim protectors in the league, and as a team, OKC is a beast on the boards. There is a reason the Thunder are 4-0 against the Mavericks this season.
But there’s also a reason the playoffs are called the “second season”, and the disappointing loss to San Antonio in their regular season finale aside, the Mavericks have been one of the league’s hottest squads. Time will tell if Dallas has enough to counter the Thunder’s devastating 1-2 punch, but they won’t go down without throwing a few haymakers themselves.