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.
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.