Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

NBA Playoffs 2012 Preview: Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Dallas Mavericks

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Oklahoma City Thunder (47-19)
107.1 Offensive Efficiency (2nd)
100.0 Defensive Efficiency (9th)
95.7 Pace (5th)
56.7 True Shooting % (1st)
51.4 Rebound Rate (5th)

Dallas Mavericks (36-30)
101.0 Offensive Efficiency (20th)
99.7 Defensive Efficiency (8th)
93.6 Pace (16th)
52.7 True Shooting % (15th)
49.3 Rebound Rate (20th)

The Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks will play Game 1 of their first round series tonight at 9:30 p.m. EST. It will be a rematch of the Western Conference Finals last year that the Mavericks won in five games.

The Thunder finished the season as the second seed in the Western Conference behind the San Antonio Spurs after looking like they were going to be the top seed for much of the season. The last three seeds in the Western Conference standings were decided in the final few games of the regular season and the Thunder drew Dallas while Denver got the six-seed and Utah the eight-seed.

Dallas was definitely the worst possible team to draw in the first round. While they had a down season compared to last year and aren’t the same team – no Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea or Caron Butler – they are still the defending champions and not the easiest matchup for the Thunder.

This year the Thunder won three out of four in the regular season against the Mavericks.

Here is how the Thunder offense stacks up against the Dallas defense.

Kevin Durant averaged 25.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game against Dallas. Russell Westbrook averaged 22.8 points and shot .392 percent from the field against the Mavericks. James Harden averaged a line of 14.3-5.0-5.0 against Dallas and also struggled from the field at .390 percent.

Dirk Nowitzki averaged 22.5 points and shot .443 percent from the field in four games against the Thunder this year.

Nowitzki was of course the NBA Finals MVP last year but hasn’t been exactly the same player this regular season. He got off to a slow start and was admittedly out of shape. His game started to come around after some rest and he looked better.

Nowitzki is still one of the best post-up players in the NBA today but his shooting numbers dropped somewhat this season.

Oklahoma City will play Nowitzki straight up without a double so he will have his chances to get going against them. Last year by the time Dallas got to the West Finals against the Thunder, Nowitzki had already been playing the best basketball of his career in those playoffs. It may be tougher for him this year to immediately turn it on with the playoffs starting today.

Nowitzki killed the Thunder in Game 1 of last year’s series. He scored 48 points and went 12-of-15 from the field and 24-for-24 from the free throw line. That set the tone for the series.

While Dallas has lost Chandler and Barea this year, it was really Nowitzki who killed the Thunder last year and that’s why this won’t be the easiest matchup again this year.

Dallas isn’t scared of Oklahoma City either. They induce a ton of turnovers from the Thunder and just look like super veterans playing young kids at times.

Here is how the Dallas offense stacks up against Oklahoma City’s defense.

It must not also be overlooked how the Thunder have improved this year.

Harden only averaged 13.0 points per game in the playoffs last year. It was his coming out party and he was great but not the same Harden he is this season. He has taken on a much larger role with the team this year and has improved all-around.

Harden is extremely important against Dallas too because Westbrook struggles against them turning the ball over and Harden is a much better decision-maker with the ball.

Harden was only in his second season last year but there was a moment during the final game of that series when it looked like the Thunder had figured out how to beat Dallas.

It was by using Harden as the ball-handler and playing Westbrook and Durant off the ball. They have had great success this season doing that as well and it is when the Thunder are truly at their best and exploiting the strengths of everyone on the floor to the fullest.

These are back-to-back possession from the Thunder with Harden as the ball handler and Westbrook scoring two times in a row as a cutter. This is how the Thunder can really hurt the Mavericks putting them in this kind of position to try and defend Westbrook.

The Mavericks are going to show a lot of zone against the Thunder in this series for sure. The Thunder have much improved this year against the zone and are one of the better teams in the league playing against it.

Durant is the best zone offensive player because of his ability to shoot the three so easily over people.

The Thunder should win this series. They are the better team this year and have come a long way since last season.

It will be especially crucial for the Thunder to protect homecourt in the first two games because you know the Mavericks will be looking to steal one of those games.

Series prediction: Thunder in 6 games.

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Tags: Dallas Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki First Round James Harden Kevin Durant NBA Playoffs Russell Westbrook

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