In what should be a rare first-round treat, Oklahoma City gets its chance to avenge last year's Western Conference finals loss to the Mavericks, while the defending champs will decide whether their follow-up act will be defined by mediocrity or mettle. The Thunder, who were a lackluster 7-7 down the stretch, won three of the four regular-season matchups with Dallas, but two were by a combined six points. The Mavericks -- who haven't been the same since losing Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson to free agency last summer -- lost 10 of their last 19 games.
As Thunder star Kevin Durant said on Thursday, much has changed for both teams since last they met in the postseason. But as Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki said when asked if his team could muster a valiant title defense, "You never know." The answers will come soon enough.
Kevin Durant vs. Shawn Marion. Marion remains one of the most undervalued players in the league, with a dedication to dominating defense that is often overlooked. He is more than capable of slowing the Thunder star, as evidenced by Durant's 44.6 field-goal percentage against Dallas this season (he shot 49.6 percent overall) and 42.9 mark in last year's conference finals. While Durant's Player Efficiency Rating is 24.5 when he plays the small forward spot (according to 82games.com), Marion has held opposing small forwards to a PER of 12.8. Something has to give.
Thunder: Thabo Sefolosha. The Thunder have a stopper of their own, and he'll come in handy against a Mavericks team that lacks scoring beyond Nowitzki and super sub Jason Terry. Terry has had a down year; his scoring average (15.1 points per game) is the lowest it's been since 2004-05. Sefolosha will be as tough as they come on the perimeter, as he held opposing shooting guards to a PER of 7.5. Kobe Bryant, who has been named to the NBA's All-Defensive team 11 times in his career, held opposing shooting guards to a 12.6 PER this season.
Mavericks: Jason Kidd. His twilight years have never been this dark, and the Mavericks won't be getting out of the shadows of the first round if Kidd can't find a way to be a bright spot. His production this season (6.2 points, 5.5 assists per game) is the worst of his 18-year career. But if Kidd can get on a well-timed roll, the Mavericks would be much better off.
The Thunder have given no reason to doubt their ability to keep this progression going, and they aren't about to spoil their stellar season by bowing out in the earliest stage of the playoffs. Their efficient and fast-paced offense will be too much for the Mavericks, who are showing none of the Cinderella qualities that made them so intriguing a year ago. Thunder in six.