Mavericks Vs. Thunder: Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, And A Dream Come True

DALLAS, TX - MAY 06: Forward Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks reacts after making a three-point shot against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Three of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs on May 6, 2011 at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The Dallas Mavericks and OKC Thunder. Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant. Who ya got? Before Game 1 tips off on Tuesday night, let's breakdown a handful of key factors to watch in the Western Conference Finals, and predict a winner.

One year you get the Suns and Lakers in Western Conference Finals, where Phoenix is the sacrificial lamb staving off the inevitable Lakers onslaught. The next? You get the two greatest scorers on the planet -- Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Durant -- going head-to-head in a series that could go either way.

It's tough to ever really complain about the NBA Playoffs, but some years are definitely better than others, and 2011 is one of those years. The past month has been basketball nirvana, and it just keeps getting better. Which brings us to the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder, and a Western Conference Finals that still feels too good to be true. The only way this series could be better is if we found a way to involve Zach Randolph and Tony Allen somehow.

Even without them, it still seems like this is all an accident or something. Like David Stern's going to come out before tip-off tonight and say, "Oh we were just screwing around. (rich white guy belly laugh) It's going to be Lakers and Spurs again this year." But as much as I'd like to something like that happen to Clay Bennett, I think this is really happening.

On one side, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, and a Mavericks team that's overachieved all year long, and just destroyed the Lakers team that was supposed to be here to beat back the Thunder for one more year. On the other side, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook emerging as the most explosive tandem in the NBA, but just to keep things interesting, the most explosive tandem in the NBA may or may not hate each other. Depends on the night.

OKC is young, athletic, and unpredictable. Dallas is old, a step slow, but more battle-tested than any team left in the playoffs. And between Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki, we've got the two most unstoppable scorers in the entire league, potentially going tit-for-tat for the next two weeks. Does all this sound like something you'd be interested in?

With that in mind, here are some factors to watch over the next week or two.

Dallas And The Rust Factor. Dirk Nowitzki has been unreal all year long. For the past decade, in fact. Save for his disappearing act in the 2007 playoffs, his career's been pretty much unimpeachable. What changed in the Lakers series wasn't Dirk, but his teammates. Guys like Peja Stojakovic and Jason Terry went from over-the-hill to in-the-zone, and coupled with Dirk's continued awesomeness, it made Dallas pretty much impossible to stop. But that was almost two weeks ago now. On the one hand, this gives Dallas' old legs a chance to rest.

On the other, it completely ruins the rhythm they fell into vs. the Lakers. That last part's important, too, because it's not every day you're going to play a team that surrenders wide-open looks for four straight games and basically makes it impossible not to catch fire. This was Dallas vs. LA:

Nba_jam_medium

With this next series, though, think of it in terms of NBA JAM. If a player catches fire in NBA JAM, you have to keep shooting for him to stay on fire. If you don't use him for a few possessions, he cools down. The same is true in real life. The entire Mavericks team caught fire against that half-assed Lakers defense. But that was 10 days ago, and chances are, a lot of those guys have cooled off now. Advantage: OKC.

Scott Brooks' Crumbling Reputation. Nobody's stock has suffered more during the Westbrook-Durant power struggle than Scott Brooks. He came into the NBA Playoffs looking like one of the best young coaches in the NBA, but now that he's here, I'm pretty sure just "young coach" would be more appropriate. After all, if there's a power struggle between two young superstars on an NBA team, shouldn't an NBA coach have the power to settle it once-and-for-all? You would think...

But Brooks has played the diplomat more than dictator in OKC, and the Thunder's offense has a nasty habit of devolving into one-on-one chaos in crunch time. Worse, a guy like Kevin Durant can go for extended stretches in the fourth quarter without touching the ball. For perspective on the insanity of this strategy, just imagine if Dallas did that with Dirk Nowitzki in the fourth quarter.

Or think of it this way. If Russell Westbrook goes off the grid for at least two games in this series, that probably hands the Mavericks two wins, and forces the Thunder to win four out of the other five. Do you trust Scott Brooks to keep that from happening? Advantage: DAL.

James Harden And Nick Collison. Here's a pretty insane stat from Sunday's Game 7 courtesy of Daily Thunder:

With Harden and Collison on the floor, the Thunder outscored Memphis 70-49. Without them, it was 41-35 in Memphis’s favor. Think about that.

Harden and Collison have become the steadying presence for OKC that a team full of 22 year-olds desperately needs, and when they're playing well (or playing at all), the Thunder become a whole lot scarier. I said earlier this spring that OKC's like a team with ADHD, and trading for Kendrick Perkins was like giving them Ritalin. The same is true for Harden and Collison, who come off the bench and immediately make things more coherent on offense.

Collison's role against Dallas will be more complicated vs. the Mavs, if only because Dirk Nowitzki's a tougher matchup for him than Z-Bo was, and OKC will need a lot more of Serge Ibaka on the court.

As for Harden, he's emerged to be everything that Russell Westbrook's not. He makes plays, he finds open cutters, and more than anything, he makes the Thunder a lot steadier on offense. He's the glue guy for OKC this year, and every title team needs a glue guy with an awesome beard.

Jamesharden

Together (and with Daequan Cook), they give OKC a much stronger bench in this series, and a lot more leeway when it comes to throwing different looks at Dirk and the Mavs. Advantage: OKC.

Russell Westbrook Vs. Jason Kidd. On the surface, this looks like a major edge for the Thunder. Nobody in the league can stay in front of Russell Westbrook, but for someone like Jason Kidd, it's almost cruel to ask him to try. Of course, the Mavs are better off with Westbrook taking 30 shots and trying to win it himself. If the advantage vs. Kidd baits him into takeover mode a couple times this series, isn't that a win for Dallas no matter what happens? Advantage: DAL.

...But let's be serious, we're all here for this:

Dirk Vs. KD. Dirk may have the tougher matchup with Serge Ibaka guarding him, but he's also proven to be more reliable in the playoffs so far. Whenever Dallas has needed him this spring, Dirk's transformed into the most unstoppable player on earth. Almost like he's flipping a switch. He's been so good coming off pick-and-rolls that it's forced teams to double him and leave his teammates wide open. This is how Dirk turned guys like J.J. Barea into full-fledged scoring threats.

On the other hand, where Dirk can flip the switch almost subconsciously, KD's still learning how. Some games he'll be in a rhythm and he looks like the best player on earth. Others, he never quite finds a groove (note: this is where a reliable point guard  would be helpful) and he can disappear down the stretch. Either way, he's a complete terror for any team he's facing, because even as he learns how to harness his powers, he still has more great games than bad ones.

So who wins this matchup? EVERYBODY.

The sort of clash that only happens in comic books. It'll answer questions like, "what happens when the two best players in a series are mirror images of each other?" Or, "What if the two best scorers on earth played one-on-one?" This series is as close as we get to that utopia. It's like something you'd hope to see in the fourth quarter of an All-Star game, except the stakes are a million times higher here.

Anyway, they may trade the upper hand back-and-forth from night-to-night, but both guys are too good to lose this matchup outright. After all's said and done, chances are we'll look back and say, "Wow, those guys were both phenomenal." And that's why this series is such a wet dream for anybody that loves the NBA. You're talking about about two perfect players going head-to-head for seven games, and we have no idea who'll win on any given night. Advantage: Push.

Star-divide

As for the series itself? It all comes down to how you read the Lakers series. If you think the Mavs role players stepped up big time and beat the Lakers themselves, then there's no reason to think they'll disappear in this series. If you think Jason Terry, Peja Stojakovic, Shawn Marion, and Jason Kidd can carry the Mavericks role players for another few weeks, then Dallas should probably win.

But I think that Lakers series was less about Dallas stepping up than it was a surreal case of a dynasty breaking down before our eyes. Dallas deserves credit for making the most of their opportunity, but they're still an old team, relying on role players that haven't been great since 2005.

At the end of the day, OKC has some serious advantages once you get past Dirk and KD (a push), meaning Dallas' best chance lies with Russell Westbrook hijacking things on the Thunder's end, and/or Durant disappearing. That first one's a good possibility, at least once or twice. But the second? I've been rolling with KD all year, and he hasn't disappointed me so far. OKC in 6.

Kevin_durant

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