Thunder-Mavs preview: Which All-NBA point guard can lead his team to the West finals?

The Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, the Oklahoma City Thunder (57-25), will take on the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks (50-32) in the 2024 Western Conference semifinals. It’s the first postseason meeting between the two franchises since 2016, when Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Co. dispatched a long-in-the-tooth Dirk Nowitzki in a spicier-than-you-might-remember five games.

With very little wasted motion.

After finishing atop the West behind a top-five offense led by MVP finalist Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and a top-five defense backstopped by Rookie of the Year runner-up Chet Holmgren, the Thunder made their playoff debut against the undermanned Pelicans … and took care of business.

Any playoff jitters that the NBA’s second-youngest roster felt during a nip-and-tuck Game 1 win — one that required clutch shots by Gilgeous-Alexander and huge stops by Holmgren and rookie guard Cason Wallace — promptly dissipated after the victory. Oklahoma City shot 59% as a team in a 32-point Game 2 blowout, and held New Orleans under 90 points in both Games 3 and 4 to finish off the sweep, becoming the youngest team ever to win a series in the NBA playoffs.

Holmgren locked down the paint, blocking 11 shots in 129 minutes and limiting the Pelicans to 13-for-36 shooting (36.1%) against him at the rim. Luguentz Dort played the kind of in-your-pores defense that’ll give Brandon Ingram nightmares all summer. Jalen Williams — 21.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5 assists per game, shooting 52.9% from the field and 38.9% from 3-point range — continued on the trajectory that has him looking like a future superstar.

There was barking. So, so much barking.

Tougher tests than Zion-less New Orleans lie ahead. Give OKC credit, though: So far, they’ve passed every one they’ve faced with flying colors.

By winning their big bets.

Asked what would make this matchup with the Clippers different from the last two times the teams squared off in the postseason — both L.A. victories — Luka Dončić offered a three-word answer: “We have Kai.”

This is why Dallas spent two starters, an unprotected first-round pick, a pair of seconds and $120 million for Kyrie Irving: to give its MVP candidate a superstar-level partner capable of helping shoulder the load against top-flight competition. It’s also why Mavericks president of basketball operations Nico Harrison was so aggressive at the 2024 trade deadline, bringing in center Daniel Gafford and forward PJ Washington to give Dončić the kind of support he needs to win at the highest level.

So far, so good:

Irving was brilliant in Round 1, topping 30 points three times on pristine 51/45/85 shooting efficiency, headlined by a 28-point second half in a deciding Game 6 that helped earn head coach Jason Kidd a new contract extension. He finished with a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, too, while helping set an aggressive tone — on both ends. (Seriously: Go back and watch the way he guarded James Harden.)

The way Dončić was struggling with his shot as he battled both a sprained right knee and a cold — 38% from the field through the first three games, just 24% from 3-point land on the whole — likely would’ve sunk Dallas in years past. This time around, though … well, they have Kai.

They also have the center tag team of Gafford and rookie center Dereck Lively II, who played a big role in Dallas posting Round 1’s third-best offensive rebounding rate and holding the Clippers to an opening-round-worst 47.9% shooting within 8 feet of the rim. With their two 7-footers lurking along the backline, the Mavs limited L.A. to just 109.5 points per 100 possessions — a whopping 8.4 points-per-100 below the Clips’ regular-season mark.

They had Washington, who worked his tail off defensively in the first playoff games of his career. The 25-year-old took on a significant share of both the Harden and Paul George assignments, and still found a way to wreak havoc as a help defender, tallying nine steals and seven blocks in six games. And they had Derrick Jones Jr. — scooped up for the minimum in August, a starter by October, and an absolute dog by April — making George work for every inch on the offensive end while also contributing energy buckets and hitting his corner 3s.

And yeah, the Clippers barely had Kawhi Leonard, who scarcely resembled his All-NBA self in a two-game cameo after missing more than three weeks with inflammation in his surgically repaired right knee. But you don’t have to apologize for who isn’t in front of you in the postseason; you just have to beat whoever is. This version of the Mavericks — bigger, faster, stronger; more athletic and more defensively capable; their offense improving game-over-game with both Luka and Kyrie on hand to create in crunch time — might finally have everything it needs to do just that.

Oklahoma City won the season series, 3-1, though it’s worth noting that all three wins came with the Thunder at full strength and with the Mavs missing key pieces.

A 126-120 win on Dec. 2 that saw eight different Thunder players score in double figures came with the Mavs on the second night of a back-to-back, before Dallas’ major midseason restructuring — Grant Williams and Seth Curry started in this one — and with Kyrie Irving, Maxi Kleber, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dante Exum all shelved by injury. (And even still, Oklahoma City had to survive blowing a big lead after giving up a 30-0 run.) A 126-119 Thunder win on March 14 came with Luka Dončić sidelined by a sore left hamstring.

And on the final day of the regular season, a Dallas team that was already locked into its 4-vs.-5 matchup with the Clippers and had nothing to play for sat just about everybody; Dončić, Irving, Kleber, Gafford, Washington, Lively, Jones Jr. and Exum all got the evening off. An Oklahoma City squad still fighting for the No. 1 seed, on the other hand, played its regular rotation to start, took an 82-41 lead into halftime, and wound up winning by 49 points.

The one time the teams matched up at more or less full strength: Feb. 10, just before the All-Star break. And the Mavericks — in their first game with Gafford and Washington in the lineup — absolutely beat the brakes off of OKC:

The Mavericks jumped all over the visitors with a 47-point first quarter and never looked back, with Dončić and Irving combining for 57 points and 17 assists (with Luka sitting out the whole fourth quarter) while Gafford and Washington chipped in another 33 off the bench. Dallas shot a sparkling 58.2% from the field as a team in a 146-111 walloping — a performance that would go down as the Mavs’ second-most-efficient offensive outing of the season and the Thunder’s worst defensive performance of the campaign.

“They were just a better team tonight from start to finish,” Gilgeous-Alexander told reporters after the loss. “They played better, played harder. More sense of urgency.”

You’d expect the Thunder to bring their own sense of urgency with a slot in the Western Conference finals on the line. They’ll need to. With Luka and Kyrie playing as well together, and off one another, as they ever have, and with Dallas’ revamped defense fresh off holding the Clippers to just 108.1 points per 100 possessions in Round 1, these Mavericks are a force to be reckoned with — the kind of well-balanced, high-end team that has all the tools to be able to knock Oklahoma City off its No. 1 spot.

DALLAS, TEXAS - DECEMBER 02: Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks looks for an opening against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander #2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at American Airlines Center on December 02, 2023 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 Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)
There will be plenty of intriguing matchups to watch in this series. (Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images)

How the Mavs guard Josh Giddey, and whether Oklahoma City makes them pay for it

There’s no shortage of options to choose from here. In a big-picture sense, the best answer is probably the back-and-forth between Luka and SGA — two MVP-caliber, likely All-NBA First Team offensive engines and late-game shot-makers, on whose shoulders rests the fate of their respective franchises.

That’s not really a matchup, though. Gilgeous-Alexander and Dončić rarely defended one another during the regular season and likely won’t see too much of one another in the postseason. That said: The one-on-one battles between Dončić and Dort, Oklahoma City’s All-Defensive Team-caliber one-on-one stopper, and between SGA and Jones Jr., fresh off of spending the last two weeks making George’s life miserable, promise to be fascinating. (I’m also interested in seeing how much J-Dub, with his 7-foot-2 wingspan and power-forward strength, lines up across from Luka.)

There’s also the push-and-pull between Dallas’ interior size, with Gafford and Lively at the 5 and Washington at the 4, against the comparatively slimmer and shorter Thunder, who feature the 195-pound Holmgren at center and frequently field lineups with four players between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-6.

Dallas pounded the Clippers on the offensive glass and with second-chance points, and Oklahoma City’s most notable weakness comes on the boards; the Thunder finished the regular season 27th in defensive rebounding rate and posted the lowest total rebounding rate in Round 1 of any team that advanced. As the Thunder see it, though, that’s less a bug than a feature — a deliberate choice to double-down on perimeter disruption on defense and spacing the floor for drive-and-kick opportunities on offense, even if it means playing a bit smaller on the boards, the result of a cost-benefit analysis indicating that they could build elite units on both ends of the floor without dominating the glass. (Here’s where we note that the Thunder were one of only two teams to finish the regular season in the top five in offensive and defensive efficiency, and that while both Jonas Valančiūnas and Larry Nance Jr. finished in the top five in offensive rebounds per game in Round 1, the Pelicans also finished with the opening round’s worst offensive rating en route to a four-game sweep.)

From a tactical perspective, though, the most interesting lever might be Oklahoma City’s well-coiffed but shaky-shooting point forward.

The Mavericks were as aggressive as any team in the league in cross-matching their centers onto Giddey; his most frequent defenders during the three regular-season matchups in which Dallas played its guys were Lively, Kleber and Gafford. Kidd invited the Thunder to swing the ball Giddey’s way by having Dallas’ bigs sag all the way off him and invited Giddey to shoot by having them close out short and at times even run away from Giddey:

The Mavs intentionally left Giddey open, deeming those launches a worthy trade-off for being able to plant more bodies in the paint to muck up the driving lanes for Gilgeous-Alexander and Williams. The gambit paid off: The third-year pro shot just 18-for-49 (36.7%) from the field, including 8-for-26 (30.8%) from 3-point range — with every beyond-the-arc shot coming without a defender within 6 feet, according to NBA Advanced Stats tracking data — and the Thunder scored 10.1 fewer points per 100 possessions against the Mavs with Giddey on the floor.

The silver lining to getting that sort of treatment from teams during the regular season? Giddey’s seen a ton of it by now and has shown signs of growth in adjusting to it. He’ll look to go to work as a screener or in dribble handoffs, trying to free up teammates for what amounts to practice shots with his defender in a deep drop. He’ll take advantage of opponents ignoring him off the ball by attacking the offensive glass, or eat up the space he’s being given, using it as a runway to the cup:

Giddey can also go the Josh Hart route and make Dallas pay for disrespecting his shot. He shot 36% from 3-point land on three attempts per game after the All-Star break, and went 9-for-18 from deep against New Orleans in Round 1, including a pair of four-triple outings in Games 3 and 4 as OKC put the Pelicans away. OKC’s 15-8 this season when Giddey makes multiple 3-pointers in a game; sometimes, the best adjustment is having the confidence to just keep shooting.

If Giddey’s not hitting, though, and if Dallas’ aggressive helping off him is gumming up the works of Oklahoma City’s otherwise pristine offensive ecosystem, Daigneault’s got options. He can go to the bench for Isaiah Joe, who shot 41.6% from deep during the regular season; for Aaron Wiggins, who shot 49.2% (albeit on significantly lower volume than Joe) and provides a bit more size and defensive steel on the wing; or for rookie Cason Wallace, a point-of-attack menace who shot 41.9% from distance during the regular season and could have particular utility in this matchup as another live option for spells on Irving.

Luka’s right knee

At the risk of overstating the obvious: Dallas’ best chance of knocking off a young, deep, hungry and talented Thunder squad lies with Dončić being the most dominant force in the series. And while he put up monster numbers against L.A. — 29.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 9.5 assists in 42.5 minutes per game in Round 1 — it sounds like they’ve taken a heavy toll on a man who’s playing through a sprained knee.

“Terrible, man,” he told reporters after closing out the Clips. “I need some rest.”

Here’s hoping the three days off between Friday’s Game 6 and Tuesday’s Game 1 did the trick, because there’s not likely to be very much rest ahead for the weary Slovenian. The second-round schedule has OKC and Dallas playing every other day for the first five games of the series, and you can safely expect the Thunder to try to use their depth to make that grind feel even harder on Dončić, throwing multiple bodies and a wide variety of looks at him, showing full-court pressure and full-tilt physicality at every opportunity.

Dallas is already down a key rotation piece, with stretch-4/small-ball 5 Kleber sidelined by a dislocated right shoulder — a high-grade injury that the Mavs say won’t even be re-evaluated for three weeks, knocking him out for the series. With their positional versatility taking a hit, and with the Thunder’s five-out offensive scheme potentially posing problems for Dallas’ drop-coverage bigs, the Mavericks will need to rely even more heavily on their fastball — which is to say, on Luka pummeling smaller defenders, bedeviling bigger ones with the stepback triples that went dry against the Clippers, and untangling every coverage woven against him.

Oklahoma City will hope that every bump in the backcourt, every change of direction at speed, every knockdown on a drive and attack in pick-and-roll defense — everything that makes Luka work just a little bit harder and expend just a little more effort early in the game and in the series — will make it just a little bit tougher for Luka to take over late in the game and late in the series. If those deposits wind up paying dividends in the form of front-rimmed jumpers, ill-timed turnovers and an inability to get down in a stance and guard the yard in crunch time, Dallas’ chances of toppling the top seed get demonstrably smaller.

Thunder in 7

In what promises to be an absolute war, I think I trust Oklahoma City’s cadre of perimeter defenders to at least make Luka and Kyrie work for everything more than I trust their Dallas counterparts to tamp down on SGA and J-Dub. That, plus OKC having home-court advantage and the loss of Kleber’s two-way matchup versatility, nudges me over to the side of youth being served.

Oklahoma City Thunder (-120)
Dallas Mavericks (+100)

Game 1: Tue., May 7 @ Oklahoma City (9:30 p.m., TNT)
Game 2: Thu., May 9 @ Oklahoma City (9:30 p.m., ESPN)
Game 3: Sat., May 11 @ Dallas (3:30 p.m., ABC)
Game 4: Mon., May 13 @ Dallas (9:30 p.m., TNT)
*Game 5: Wed., May 15 @ Oklahoma City (TBD, TNT)
*Game 6: Sat., May 18 @ Dallas (8:30 p.m., ESPN)
*Game 7: Mon., May 20 @ Oklahoma City (8:30 p.m., TNT)

*if necessary