Technically, yes, they were the defending champions.
But we all could see that these weren't the same Dallas Mavericks.
That doesn't make the Thunder's first-round sweep any less impressive. It just calls into question the four straight victories as any sort of reliable indicator of exactly where this Thunder team is.
After losing Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson, the Mavs lost their championship mettle. Dallas was forced to play this season despite this season never being about this season. Management put the Mavs in the position of playing out the string while counting down the days to the start of the Dwight Howard/Deron Williams sweepstakes. But to its credit, the Thunder wasted no time in putting the Mavs out of their misery.
“We would have loved to have kept the troops together,” said Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki after being eliminated. “As players, we would have loved to have gotten the guys back and given it a true shot to defend.”
Notice the words “true shot.” Keep them in mind throughout this week while celebrating the sweep and awaiting the winner between the Lakers and Nuggets — because the old saying about beating the champ to be the champ really doesn't apply in this instance.
Again, that's not taking anything away from the Thunder and what the team accomplished. There were moments throughout the series that unequivocally showed OKC has improved since last season. How much, however, might not fully be known until the Thunder faces a true contender like the Lakers or Spurs.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks, though, said he doesn't judge his team that way.
“I just compare our team versus our team this year,” Brooks said. “I think we've gotten better as the year has (gone) on.”
Chances are high the Thunder will do the same as the playoffs roll along. Just don't expect OKC to continue to roll through the rest of the postseason. At some point, some sort of adversity will set in. That's when we'll get the true indication of how much this Thunder team has grown.
Still, when analyzing the sweep, there is a litany of things to like that the Thunder did right.
The Thunder never saw its best players all put it together and shine in the same game, yet OKC got key contributions from various sources to still be successful.
The Thunder did a good job taking care of the ball.
The Thunder's defense was dialed in and, at times, dominant.
The Thunder got to the free throw line and excelled once there.
The Thunder figured out Dallas' vaunted matchup zone.
The Thunder showed even more road toughness than it did a year ago, when it won a game apiece at Denver, at Memphis and at Dallas in the postseason.
The Thunder, for the most part, turned turnovers into points.
The Thunder, most importantly and most impressively, closed out games.
So many good things should inspire confidence among Thunder players as the playoffs march on.
But there were a few shortcomings that showed up.
For starters, Oklahoma City showed its affinity for the jump shot. The Thunder hoisted 86 3-pointers, a four-game average that, at 21.5, is 1.5 more than its regular season per game total. Fortunately for the Thunder, those jumpers were dropping at a 38.1 percent rate. But against better defenses, rims have a way of tightening.
Additionally, the Thunder averaged just 35 points in the paint, a tally that would have ranked third-to-last in the regular season. Only twice against Dallas did the Thunder muster more than 26 paint points.
Secondly, the Thunder's defensive rebounding was suspect. Oklahoma City allowed just 10.5 offensive rebounds per game, 2.2 fewer than its second-to-last ranking in the regular season. But the Mavs were the fourth worst offensive rebounding team in the league at 10.1 per game. Yet Dallas generated 11.3 second-chance points on average in the series. The Lakers are a top-10 offensive rebounding team and could toy with the Thunder on the glass if OKC doesn't shore up things soon.
Lastly, the Thunder's 3-point defense will need some work. Dallas shot 37.1 percent from downtown despite going 12-of-38 (31.6 percent) from 3-point range in the middle two games.
There is still tons of time for the Thunder to button up its issues. The good news for OKC is that even eventual championship teams don't start playing their best ball until the latter rounds.
That seems to be when we'll get the true sense of how far this Thunder team can go.