Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle had high praise for the Oklahoma City Thunder after being swept out of the first round, and his opinion was likely only reinforced after OKC's impressive dismantling and elimination of the Los Angeles Lakers in five games.
"No question that they got better," Carlisle said, comparing this OKC team that is 8-1 in the playoffs to the one the Mavs ousted in five games in last season's West finals. "When they went through what they did last year where they won two rounds and got in a tough series with us and basically were right there in every game, you take quantum leaps in terms of your emotional growth, understanding what it takes to advance to the highest levels."
It's been documented by the Thunder's coolness and effectiveness under late-game duress against the Mavs and Lakers, extinguishing the harshest criticism heaped on the kiddos a year ago.
If the Thunder, elevated by a core of four players age 23 and younger -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka -- beat the championship-pedigreed and re-invented San Antonio Spurs in the West finals, their path to the NBA Finals will have rolled through the three franchises that have represented the West since 1999, and that have won 10 of the last 13 championships.
It would certainly signal an official restructuring of the West hierarchy.
"Their players individually have gotten better," Carlisle said. "Westbrook is a better player this year. Durant’s a little stronger and a little bit better. Ibaka has taken a major quantum leap and (Kendrick) Perkins, last year he wasn’t the same player. He was coming off of a surgery the previous summer and there’s a huge difference in his body this year. He’s 20 to 25 pounds lighter, back playing above the rim again and was doing some good things offensively. He really brought toughness to their team. They’re in a great position."
If OKC goes on to win it all -- and for the sake of argument let's say it beats the Miami Heat in the Finals -- will a run through the Mavs, Lakers, Spurs and Heat be more impressive than the trail of superstar ashes left in the Mavs' wake as they bulldozed through the Lakers, Thunder and Heat?
With at least four more days until the start of this highly anticipated West final, let the debate begin.