DALLAS &mdash Which superstar would you want leading your team at this point in the playoffs?
Kevin Durant or Dirk Nowitzki?
It's one of those questions that has no wrong answer and is super subjective. For instance, folks just north of the Red River might think Durant is the obvious choice, while fans immediately south might side with Nowitzki without a moment's hesitation.
That's what makes this Western Conference Finals series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks so intriguing. For the first time in the Thunder's 2011 postseason, it will share the court with a team that fields another bona fide superstar. The ultimate winner of this showdown could be decided by which big gun is able to prop his team on his shoulders the most.
“He's a great, great player,” Durant said of Nowitzki. “He's playing very, very well in these playoffs, and he's been doing that for 10 or 11 years. We have our work cut out for us, but it should be fun.”
Nowitzki is in the midst of one of his finest postseasons yet. He's averaging 26.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 2.8 assists. He's shooting 49.7 percent from the field, 60 percent from beyond the 3-point line and right at 90 percent from the free throw line. He's had three games of at least 32 points this postseason and has shown the toughness and grit that he not long ago was routinely blasted for not bringing.
Durant, meanwhile, goes into his first-ever West final with a head of steam and a stable of confidence. He's averaging 28.9 points this postseason, along with 7.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and one blocked shot per night. He's shooting 45.8 percent from the field, 38 percent from downtown and 82.2 percent at the stripe. Like Nowitzki, Durant has silenced some critics by proving himself to be a reliable closer in these playoffs.
Durant is averaging 37 points on 50 percent shooting in closeout games thus far. The Thunder is 2-1 in those contests.
Of course, Durant isn't seeking to turn this series into a battle of the stars.
“We can't really think about it as us against Dirk, or me against Dirk,” Durant said. “I think we just go out there and play our games and have fun. That's what I try to tell the guys all the time, just to have fun.”
Although their time on the court together was limited during the regular season, Durant and Nowitzki still managed to put on pretty impressive performances.
Durant averaged 29.3 points, six rebounds and four assists against Dallas in the three-game regular season series. He made 52.4 percent of his shots from the field in 41 minutes per game.
Nowitzki was limited in the regular season series due to injury and played only the first game and the first half of the second meeting. He averaged 23.5 points on 61.9 percent shooting in those two appearances, which averaged out to just 25.5 minutes. He had a game-high 34 points in the Mavs' 111-103 win on Nov. 24.
“He's as skilled as an offensive player as I've seen, and he does so many things,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks of Nowitzki. “Very fundamental basketball, but then he throws stuff at you that's not fundamental. He scores off the wrong foot, spinning the way that you don't think he's going to spin, and he makes the fadeaway shot look very easy.”
How the Thunder could defend Dirk Nowitzki.
Serge Ibaka: Thunder coach Scott Brooks said his second-year power forward will get the first crack at Nowitzki as the starting power forward opposite Dallas' superstar. But Nowitzki's perimeter-oriented game is a tough challenge for Ibaka, who isn't accustomed to guarding big men on the wing. The biggest test for Ibaka will be to stay down on Nowitzki's pump fakes. If Ibaka doesn't, Nowitzki will get tons of open looks and driving lanes to the basket. Nowitzki also could use his nifty pump fakes to get Ibaka in the air before initiating contact, which would put Ibaka in foul trouble.
Nick Collison: The best defense for Nowitzki just might be sending waves of defenders his way. Collison is expected to be called upon to defend Nowtizki at times throughout this series as well. Look for Collison to get some minutes matched up against Nowitzki late in the first quarter and, depending on how successful he is, in spurts in the second half.
Play small: Kevin Durant acknowledged Monday that the plan is to indeed play a good amount of small ball. That would leave Durant at the power forward spot next to either more than likely Ibaka or Collison at center. This might be the Thunder's best plan of attack. Durant is quick enough, long enough and smart enough to do a decent job on Nowitzki.
How the Mavs could defend Kevin Durant.
Shawn Marion: The Mavericks' starting small forward probably will start out on Durant and try to use his length and athleticism to crowd Durant to disrupt the NBA's scoring champ's rhythm. There was a time when Marion was one of the most versatile defenders in the league because of his athleticism. It helped make him a four-time All-Star. But that time was many moons ago. Today, Marion is a 33-year old shell of his former self. He might have success in spurts against Durant. But we'd be shocked if he's able to sustain it.
DeShawn Stevenson: The Mavs start Stevenson at shooting guard, and it's highly likely that Dallas fires this loose cannon Durant's way a fair amount. Stevenson's game is intimidation and physicality. He'll try to push and shove and hold Durant to make things uncomfortable. But at 6-5, two inches shorter than Marion, Stevenson is no match for Durant's size.
Corey Brewer: If Brewer gets some burn, you know Dallas is in desperation mode. Physically, Brewer might be Dallas' best matchup for Durant. Brewer is 6-9 and a tremendous athlete who uses his length and toughness to stick with Durant. But Brewer isn't in the Mavs' rotation so he isn't likely to be called into duty for anything but emergency purposes.
Zone: The Mavs had success multiple times this season at shutting down the Thunder's offense by switching to a zone defense. Dallas did a terrific job in the three regular season meetings of clogging the paint and making the Thunder shoot jumpers. The defensive scheme forced the Thunder to pass around the perimeter too much looking for seems instead of making its own seems. It took the ball out of Durant's hands and didn't allow him to run off screens or operate in isolations.
How the Mavs could defend Russell Westbrook.
Jason Kidd: Two words. Good luck. Kidd is no match for Westbrook at this point in his career. At 38, Kidd is 16 years older than Westbrook. Kidd no longer has the speed to stay in front of Westbrook. Where Kidd has the advantage is experience. His knowledge of angles could help him limit Westbrook, while his veteran savvy (read: mind games) could frustrate Westbrook.
DeShawn Stevenson: With Thabo Sefolosha as the Thunder's starting shooting guard, opponents have gotten into a habit of protecting their inferior defensive point guards by moving them onto Sefolosha and putting a stronger defender on Westbrook. It won't take long for the Mavs to pull out this option. Stevenson still isn't quick enough to stay in front of Westbrook. But he's a better option than Kidd.
Zone: The Mavs might think a 2-3 zone can keep Westbrook out of the paint. But if they make the switch with that in mind they clearly haven't paid enough attention. Westbrook has matured since the last meeting on Jan. 6. He know attacks zones with dribble penetration to break down defenses and put pressure on opponents. There is no better example of Westbrook's evolution than what he did to Phoenix on March 30. Westbrook dominated the Suns on the road after they switched to a zone. He blew by speedy point guard Aaron Brooks with ease and got to the rim time and time again. It led to an 18-point thumping.