Dirk Nowitzki has been off for more than a week, so if he flew high after leading his Dallas Mavericks past the Los Angeles Lakers in a stirring and stunning sweep in the second round, that sweet emotion has perhaps dissipated. After all, it isn't as if Nowitzki hasn't been here before; the 2007 MVP nearly won the championship in 2006. Making the Western Conference Finals isn't exactly new, even if it's been a while.
For Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, it's new. The young squad won 20 games just three years ago, and few more the following season. Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden -- the teams' four most important players -- are all on their rookie deals. (Durant begins his lucrative second contract next year.) Perhaps this season, this core hadn't won a playoff series; now, they are four wins away from the NBA Finals.
So while the old guard-new guard trope might seem cliché as we enter the Western Conference Finals, it fits. A last hurrah for the Mavericks, a predictive triumph for the Thunder. The teams will meet in Game 1 on Tuesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Dallas has home court advantage, which should come in handy; Oklahoma City has gone 2-3 on the road in these playoffs and 6-1 at home. Dallas showed an ability to win on the road by taking Game 6 in Portland against the Trail Blazers and sweeping the Lakers in Games 1 and 2 in Los Angeles. But that won't matter this week, as the Mavericks -- undefeated in the playoffs at home -- play host for the first two games.
Westbrook's ability to replicate his Game 7 playmaking -- he finished with 14 assists -- could be key as the Mavericks will assuredly throw the book at Durant and a million different defensive looks at the Thunder. Expect plenty of zone from Dallas, as the Mavericks will test Westbrook's decision-making and OKC's sometimes iffy shooting. On the other end, how Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins defend Dirk while always keeping Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood off of the offensive glass will be crucial. The Lakers showed that you also ought to be worried about Jason Terry and Peja Stojakovic shooting open threes. (Who knew?)