May 25, 2024

Mavs-Thunder preview: What to watch for, how Maxi Kleber injury affects series

For the next two weeks, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks are foes.

Starting with Tuesday’s Game 1, these two teams will flit back and forth between the 200 miles separating them to determine who reaches the Western Conference finals. To discuss how this series will look, The Athletic’s Tim Cato, who’s based in Dallas, and Anthony Slater, a former Thunder beat writer covering Oklahoma City this round, dissect what we might see.

Tim Cato: Slater, welcome back to the land of Tex-Mex and Interstate-35. We have the start of a Red River basketball rivalry that might have more legs than previous ones did: These two franchises’ prior postseason matchups were either before (the Thunder in the 2011 conference finals) or after (the Mavericks in the 2012 and 2016 first-round defeats) those rosters’ respective primes. Add in each team’s respective MVP candidate, which always heats the discourse between fan bases, and this should be fun.

Let’s start here: Dallas was a potential first-round foe for the Thunder throughout the season’s final months. Once you reach the semifinals, there are no pushovers. But where would you have had them ranked among Oklahoma City’s other potential opponents? Do the Thunder feel like the Mavericks offer a reasonable matchup?

Anthony Slater: In general, it felt like the West first round reminded us to respect the meaning of regular-season results. For months, everyone warned of the veteran threats at the bottom of the bracket compared to the youth hovering up top. Then, the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Thunder went a combined 12-1 against the Lakers, Suns and Pelicans, while the Warriors sat at home.

If we’re sifting through everybody left, the standings would indicate the Mavericks are the preferred opponent, a 50-win team in a land of 57-win ones. This is the benefit of the Thunder stealing away the top seed in the final week. They avoided the Nuggets and Timberwolves in the second round and ensured only one would stand in a potential path to the conference crown.

But if the question is whether the Thunder preferred the Mavericks in the second round over either the fading Clippers (without Kawhi Leonard) or anyone below them: No. Heck no. Dallas, since the trade deadline, separated itself into a tier above that group and reinforced it the last 10 days. It has a megastar entering his prime and a proven co-star looking every bit the fierce version that won a title next to LeBron James eight years ago. The Thunder are wary of this threat.

Cato: I believe Dallas prefers this series to the Minnesota Timberwolves or the Denver Nuggets, but for the same reasons you pointed out: not disrespect, just pragmatism, which is the best you can expect at this point in this conference. The Thunder have a strength and a weakness the Mavericks probably prefer over those other two matchups — especially after Maxi Kleber’s Game 6 injury that has him ruled out for the series, if not the postseason.

That strength is creating turnovers. No team caused more lost possessions than the Thunder in the regular season, exemplified in a March 14 win over Dallas where the Mavericks coughed it up 19 times. Luka Dončić, who led the league in turnovers this year, didn’t play in that game. But we also understand that Dončić’s control and ball domination leads to his turnovers, which in turn leads to a particularly turnover-adverse overall squad. Dallas was fourth this season in turnover rate.

Oklahoma City cannot be fully denied, of course. It has ballhawks built like rhinoceroses who hunt orange leather like it’s blood in the water. But on first glance, I favor Dončić’s length and savvy nullifying that strength more than the other way around. You?

Slater: Yes. I generally expect this to be a low-turnover series. Neither team gives it up much. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led the league in steals this season. He’ll jump passing lanes. Their ball pressure and team length gets to teams. But Mark Daigneault isn’t obsessed with turning teams over as part of his scheme. I don’t think he’ll sell out to generate something that isn’t there.

Cato: And to your point, it’s not like Oklahoma City’s offense is propped up by fast break points: The Thunder scored the sixth-most points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt this season, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Slater: I do wonder about their ability to contain Dončić even without steal-hunting. Lu Dort was asked after the Thunder’s afternoon practice Sunday about the differing challenges defending Kyrie Irving compared to Dončić. His response: “Luka’s taller.” It was a quick quip, but I think noteworthy.

Dort, the Thunder’s stopper, is only 6-foot-4. He gave the taller Brandon Ingram all sorts of issues in the first round. But Ingram is bothered by physicality. Dončić is stronger and a whole lot harder to knock off his spots and out of his rhythm.

This, to me, profiles as a real test for Jalen Williams and where, at the tail end of his second season, he stands as an emerging two-way star in this league. He has a 7-foot-2 wingspan and the type of defensive versatility to slide between Irving and Dončić. I’ll be curious to see which of the two (Dort or Williams) has more success against Dončić in Game 1 and how Daigneault arranges his matchups as the series progresses.

Cato: I also mentioned one weakness of Oklahoma City’s, the one we all know, which is the team’s size. It’s a chosen weakness, one that benefits this team in other areas due to the five-out spacing it provides. Still, the Thunder were in the bottom-five for defensive rebounding rate this season even if they finished 10th following the All-Star break.

The Thunder and the Mavericks played four times, but only one of them came with Dončić and Irving both on the floor. That was the Feb. 10 blowout win in which P.J. Washington and Daniel Gafford made their Dallas debuts.

Dallas isn’t a ferocious offensive rebounding team, even since the trade deadline, although it can be. The team’s best post-deadline win, against the Nuggets, for example, was thanks to a massive rebounding edge. But the Mavericks are physical and tall. In three regular-season head-to-head matchups, Gafford and Dereck Lively II combined for 62 points and 42 rebounds on 26-of-34 shooting. Will that translate to the playoffs?

Slater: The Mavericks were 25th in offensive rebound rate. They don’t crush the Thunder’s biggest weakness. I actually think the Gafford and Lively numbers will be dictated more on the Thunder’s ability to stay in front (or not) on the perimeter.

Chet Holmgren is one of the league’s best paint protectors. He blocked the second-most shots in the NBA and challenged the third-most at the rim this season. The Pelicans were 9 of 35 within five feet against Holmgren in the first round, per tracking data. So, if he isn’t in a compromised position, he’s difficult to score against.

But if Dončić and Irving are muscling or whizzing past Dort, Williams, Cason Wallace and whoever else, forcing Holmgren to collapse and everyone to scramble, the lobs and clean-up offensive rebounds will be sitting there uncontested for Lively and Gafford.

What’s your thought on the other end? How do you see Lively and Gafford handling the five-out spacing? Do you expect Jason Kidd to start his center on Josh Giddey? And how do you think the Kleber absence factors into all this?

Cato: Dallas was one of the teams that aggressively invited Giddey to shoot in the regular season. I’d expect this series to start like you said, with Dallas’ center guarding him only nominally.

Lively is the more mobile center of the two. Dallas protected him this season, rarely asking him to switch outright, although the team sees him morphing into that kind of player. Against the Clippers, there were times where he switched onto James Harden. When he’s on the court, there may be possessions where Washington becomes the low man helper while sagging off Giddey.

But it’s a big test for both centers. Since the trade deadline, Dallas had yielded the third-lowest percentage on opponent shots near the rim. And no team has been better than Dallas this postseason, as the Clippers shot just 50.4 percent. So yes, Dallas will sell out to keep its rim protectors near the rim they protect, even at the expense of open shots.

Before we get to Kleber, let me ask you this: How’s Giddey been when dared to shoot, and what’s the Thunder’s main adjustment?

Slater: Better. Opponents have done it so often that he’s received the requisite reps and, it seems, gotten over some of the initial embarrassment of the strategy being deployed.

He’s actually hitting a decent amount of shots. Giddey is 36 percent from 3 since the All-Star break and made 9 of 18 against the Pelicans in the first-round sweep. So there’s an increased level of confidence, even if defenses remain just as willing to dare him to shoot. He’s also attacking space quicker and more decisively, using his playmaking and floater. Still, his limitations sometimes muck up some of OKC’s flow and action.

One of the Thunder’s available adjustments is a lineup tweak, especially to close halves. Isaiah Joe is the extra floor spacer. Wallace is the extra defender who could prove particularly useful as an extra bulldog to throw on Irving.

Cato: That checks out. While you’re absolutely right that Dallas doesn’t feast on offensive boards, one mid-series adjustment if the team needs new answers might be selling out on the glass in an attempt to take advantage of such smaller lineups. But we’ll see.

As for Kleber, his absence will be painful. He’s not the team’s third-most important player, but he might be the third-least replaceable one. The smaller-ball looks with him at center gave Dallas optionality, but it’s the bigger lineups with him next to one of the traditional centers that really made Dallas dangerous. With him, Dallas would still have had a shot-blocking low man to rotate over to the rim even if Lively or Gafford were pulled out to the perimeter. Kleber’s the player who could’ve amplified Dallas’ size and, potentially, exposed Oklahoma City’s. That’ll be harder to do without him.

Washington is a decent like-for-like replacement, but isn’t quite as sharp with his rotations or threatening with his contests. If he’s the weak-side defender, it starts as a chain reaction where Irving might have to guard, say, Gilgeous-Alexander, so that Derrick Jones Jr. can stick onto Williams down the stretch. Like I said, it’s the loss of optionality that really hurts.

Speaking of, we barely even mentioned the two MVP candidates, spiced up by the award likely being announced mid-series. I think that’s the right place to end here. Dončić has a bad knee and was oddly inefficient — while still enormously impactful, including some of his best-ever work on the defensive end — against the Clippers. I’ve watched him long enough to know that probably won’t matter. He’ll need to be brilliant, and I suspect he will be.

Same goes for Gilgeous-Alexander, another one of the league’s transcendent stars. Of course we spent most of this discussion droning on about smaller subtleties; we expect those two, along with Irving and Williams, to be incredible. But basketball often comes down to each team’s best players, and I expect this series will be no different.

Slater: It should be noted Gilgeous-Alexander tweaked his ankle in Game 4 against the Pelicans, but practiced on Sunday. So did Williams, who was banged up against the Pelicans.

Daigneault said the Thunder have a clean bill of health heading into Game 1, rare for this time of year. They also received eight days off between series, which will spark the rest-versus-rust debate, depending on how Tuesday’s opener goes.

Cato: I think Oklahoma City takes Game 1: because of the Thunder’s incredible home court atmosphere, because the Thunder play so differently than the Clippers, because Kidd has yet to win any Game 1s across four series coaching Dallas and because Dallas has to adjust on the fly to a Kleber-less rotation. But Dallas can win this series even if that happens.

And whichever team prevails, it’s a statement of intent. Both teams are excellent, and maybe, just maybe, it’s the start of a rivalry to come.

(Top photo of Luka Dončić and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)