Mavs At OKC: Westbrook To Sit Out
It is the opportunity to win something that serves as the central focus of the reason we play, the reason we care, the reason we compete.
But when Dallas opposes OKC -- as is the case tonight, with yours truly as part of the telecast on FOX Sports Southwest beginning at 5:30 -- it feels less like an "opportunity'' and more like an "inevitability.''
It's not just that the Dallas Mavericks Were to face the unenviable challenge of slowing down Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, labeled by Dallas coach Rick Carlisle as being at "the very top of the list with whoever else is a good 1-2 punch."
It's not just that there is a standings gap between the Mavs (at 39-27) and the Thunder (at 48-17). ... Dallas trying to climb from the seventh spot in the West and OKC trying to climb from the second spot.
It's that if these two teams remain in their present slots in the playoff race, they will oppose one another in the first round of the playoffs. And because "The Red River Shootout'' has become terribly lopsided, with OKC having won 11 straight in the series. ... that doesn't sound very inviting.
"The season has to be played on the court, not on paper," Carlisle said, referring to OKC's chance at a title but also saying something that applies to this game and a future playoff battle. "The parity in the West is so distinctive that you cannot take anything for granted, whether you're San Antonio, Oklahoma City, the Clippers, anybody.
"It's just very hard.''
Hard to win a title, Rick means, because of the gauntlet that must be navigated.
Can Dallas be a difficult part of that gauntlet?
The numbers say no. Durant leads the NBA in scoring at 31.8 points per game, and also averages 7.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists. Westbrook is averaging 21.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 2.0 steals per game - but he won't play tonight as OKC has decided that while he returns from the knee injury he won't play on both ends of consecutive games. (OKC plays Chicago on Monday.) The Mavs come up short in trying to match that -- certainly on the defensive end, where put-upon Shawn Marion will take his turns trying to slow now just the "1-punch" of KD.
Dallas also comes up short on the offensive end against the long Thunder. Dirk Nowitzki has been held to 11.7 points per game on 11-of-34 shooting in his last three visits to OKC, where the Mavs have lost seven straight (counting the 2012 playoffs). Dallas last won a regular-season game in OKC in December 2010, and this year the Thunder is 18-2 at home against West foes.
Meanwhile, in the last five meetings between the teams, Durant has averaged 33 points per and the Thunder have scored at least 107 in each.
In the only meeting between the regional rivals so far this year, Oklahoma City handled Dallas, 107-93, on Nov. 6. That was consecutive win No. 11, which includes that first-round sweep in the 2012 playoffs.
A sure sign of rivalry slippage: The Mavs have lost seven straight in OKC (playoffs included). The first five losses were by margins of six or fewer. The last two were by margins of 21 anf 14 points.
There might be advantages to come on the schedule but they come following tonight. On Monday against Boston Dallas begins an eight-game homestand as it tries to fend off Memphis and Phoenix for the final two playoff spots in the West.
And if the Mavericks do that, their reward might get to be the Thunder. Again. Little wonder that Carlisle -- even now that he's got to strategize against only one of them -- sidestepped specifics about other NBA "1-2 punches'' in comparison to OKC's.
"The last thing I want to do is piss anybody off by saying one 1-2 punch is better than another,'' He said. "We don't need that. We've got enough challenges as is it."