To call the Western Conference Final featuring the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder a series of the old guard versus a group of young rising stars would be an oversimplification. After all, Dallas has 26-year old J.J. Barea playing a crucial role off the bench, just as 33-year old Nazr Mohammed and 30-year old Nick Collison have played in every Thunder playoff game.
But, exceptions aside, let’s face it: this series is all about old versus young.
On one end of the court, you have the Mavs, the league’s fourth-oldest team at the start of the season (average age of 28.88) who are led by 32-year old Dirk Nowitzki. On the other side, you have the Thunder, the third-youngest team in the league (24.73) that boasts the two-pronged attack of 22-year olds Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Heck, Westbrook was still a month away from his sixth birthday when Jason Kidd, his opposing point guard in the series, made his NBA debut.
This series is about one team trying to attain basketball’s Holy Grail after years of crushing disappointment and the knowledge that their window of opportunity is closing, while the other is still growing together and view the postseason as a launching pad to building a perennial winner.
Age also has a part to play in the strange match-ups that the series appears set to produce.
Each team will be hard-pressed to find a suitable defender to shoulder the bulk of the load on the other team’s leading scorer. Dallas will try to through a variety of wing players at Durant, none of whom are ideal – Shawn Marion isn’t quick enough, DeShawn Stevenson isn’t big enough and Cory Brewer simply doesn’t give the Mavs enough offensively.
Similarly, Oklahoma City traded away their preferred regular season defensive option on Nowitzki (Jeff Green) and will have to hand the assignment to Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison, both of whom are better suited guarding the low post.
It isn’t just the superstars that will pose quirky mismatches, either. Kidd will face his toughest challenge of the postseason as he tries to stay in front of the explosive Westbrook, while Thunder swingmen like Thabo Sefolosha and James Harden will be forced to step out on Dallas perimeter shooters Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry.
For as much as the Thunder’s seven-game set against the Memphis Grizzlies came down to Durant’s ability to answer the bell when it mattered (and he did to the tune of a 39-point effort in the deciding contest), a spot in the NBA Finals could come down to the backpack-wearer’s running mate.
Westbrook should dominate the match-up with Kidd, but how he goes about doing so will make all the difference in the series. If he takes the edge as a green light to take over the series, he would be taking the ball out of Durant’s hands and potentially throwing the Thunder offense out of sync. After all, Oklahoma City are 3-4 in playoff games where the UCLA product takes 20 or more shots, as opposed to 5-0 when he puts up 19 or fewer. If he can dominate Kidd (and Barea, for that matter) while continuing to create for teammates, he will get not only Durant, but also Harden, Sefolosha and Daequan Cook some open looks.
However, in my humble opinion (an opinion that, mind you, owns a pretty mediocre 7-5 prediction record in these playoffs), it won’t work out that way. Westbrook shot 14-44 in three games against Big D this season and Kidd has the veteran savvy to play off of the youngster so as not to let him use his quick first step to find the lane. I see Westbrook putting up his fair share of bricks en route to the Mavs making their first NBA Finals appearance since 2006.
Ben’s fearless prediction: Mavs in six