The Thunder plays the Dallas Mavericks twice over the next four days, a game tonight at American Airlines Center and a rematch Monday night in the Ford Center. For the Mavericks, two games against Oklahoma City are opportunities to improve playoff positioning. In upcoming seasons, Oklahoma City-Dallas games might have playoff implications for both teams. Dallas is one of several aging Western Conference teams the Thunder must pass to reach the postseason. "The Mavericks have four key players over age 30, so it’s understandable to target them as a team in decline,” said David Moore of the Dallas Morning News. "But I don’t believe it’s cut and dried. Successful veteran teams tend to perform at a high level longer. "Dirk Nowitzki is still in his prime. And they have a proactive owner in Mark Cuban. A fractured economy and the unprecedented free agent class of 2010 are two key variables into the competitive mix.” Even if the Thunder shows significant improvement the next year or two, a couple of perennial playoff teams must suffer a dropoff. "No question in 2010-11, major stars in San Antonio, Dallas and Phoenix could be on the decline,” said Chris Colston of USA Today. "As long as Gregg Popovich is coaching, the Spurs will be tough. Competitive owner Mark Cuban will do whatever he can to keep the Mavs viable. "But it certainly appears that OKC has the chance to be in the playoff mix if it can continue to add pieces like it has the last two years.” Unlike the Eastern Conference, where sub-.500 teams qualify for the playoffs, the West’s No. 8 seed has finished with 50, 42, 44, 45, 43, 47, 44, 47 and 44 wins the past nine seasons. Lakers coach Phil Jackson said it’s impossible to project the future. "Free agency can change everything,” Jackson said. "Several years ago, we went through that in the West. Chris Webber and Shaq (O’Neal) and a number of guys came from the East, and the West became the dominant force. It changed the dynamics. "Dallas is a team (where) some of their players are older and will have to rebuild. The Spurs are an aging team. They’ll have to go through a building process at some point. Steve Nash and Shaq are older, and Phoenix will go through that process.” Jackson likes Oklahoma City’s nucleus. What he likes most is Oklahoma City’s young stars are meshing, but he warns that four first-round draft picks the next two years will test team chemistry. "What I don’t want to see them remind me of is the Clippers, who had a lot of draft picks over the years,” Jackson said. "(Sometimes) you get all these young players and they can’t function together because of the pecking order. That has to be established. "But this group, the Thunder — or the tornadoes as I like to call them — really play well together. They like each other. You can tell that on the floor. The chemistry part is pretty well established. But with all those first-round draft picks, they’ll have a lot going on.” The Thunder is focused on improving the final 25 games in hopes of becoming a future playoff contender. "We all like the direction we’re going,” said Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks.
Thunder at Mavericks
→When: 7:30 tonight →Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas →TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma (Cox 37) →Radio: WWLS-FM 98.1, WWLS-AM 640 →Live blog: Go to NewsOK.com Three things to know
→Dallas is 9-4 the past month, the losses coming against Boston, Houston, San Antonio and Utah. →The Mavericks are second in the league in free throw percentage (81.4 percent). →Dallas is 20-4 at home since Nov. 21 after opening the season with four straight home losses. Probable Starters