Saturday night brings the most important postseason in the history of the Thunder, as OKC hosts the Dallas Mavericks at 8:30 p.m. inside of Chesapeake Energy Arena. With Kevin Durant’s impending free agency this summer, it’s crucial the Thunder take care of business and avoid an early exit from the playoffs.
Here are a few things to know about Game 1:
Mavericks are a hot team
Despite garnering the No. 6 seed in this year’s playoffs, the Mavericks had to play pressure-packed basketball down the stretch of the season in order to make the playoffs. Dallas has won seven of its last nine games with its only losses coming against the Clippers and the Spurs.
Not only were the Maverick’s winning games, but Dallas was beating teams that were similarly fighting for its playoff lives, such as Utah, Memphis, Houston and Detroit.
When there’s a win-or-go-home feel surrounding a team, there’s no doubt it changes the way a group of guys approaches a game. It’s not likely that will be a deciding factor in this series, but the Mavericks clearly had a head start in playing in high-intensity games since OKC has been firmly seated as the No. 3 seed for quite some time.
OKC needs to pick up the pace
With injuries plaguing the team throughout the season, Dallas had to figure out a way to win games. Over the final stretch of the season the Mavs looked to have figured out how to do just that. The Mavericks averaged a league-low 91.8 possessions per game over its last nine (won seven) and never allowed more than 98 points in a game.
While the Mavs will be bogging the game down with long possessions, the Thunder will be looking to run the floor early and often. OKC ranks ninth in the league in pace over the season, and it’s no secret that Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook thrives in the open court.
It’ll be interesting to watch this battle of two teams trying to do completely different things.
We all know what Dirk Nowitzki is capable of doing out on the hardwood, but the Mavericks will need contributions from a handful of players if Dallas plans on pulling off the upset. With injuries to Chandler Parsons and the likely doubtful David Lee, the Mavs will have to reach deep into the cookie jar if Dallas wants to retaliate the Thunder with lightning.
Rookie guard Justin Anderson only averaged 11.8 minutes per game on the season, but has upped that number as of late and is averaging 26.3 minutes in the month of April. Anderson has become a valuable energy player for the Mavericks, and is averaging 8.0 points and six rebounds over his last 10 games.
Another guy who will be a factor in the series will be Salah Mejri. The Tunisian center averaged 3.7 points and 3.6 rebounds per game on the season, but in three games against the Thunder, Mejri averaged 8 points and 5.3 rebounds while accumulating seven blocks in 42 total minutes.
Obviously the play of J.J. Barea, Wesley Matthews and Zaza Pachulia will be pivotal for Dallas as well.