Best first-round matchup?
Mavs can clip the Clippers
Let's get this straight right off the bat: None of the top four seeds are ideal first-round opponents. That's why it's preferential to finish in the top four.
The Dallas Mavericks can't get there, so it's my job to determine which of the top four teams -- the Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers or the Los Angeles Clippers -- would make the most ideal matchup for the defending champs.
Immediately, scratch the Lakers off the list. There are simply way too many mismatches, from Andrew Bynum to Metta World Peace to Ramon Sessions. Kobe Bryant & Co. are seething over last year's sweep, hence the 4-0 blanking the Lakers put on Dallas in the regular season.
The Spurs' penetrating backcourt and 3-point shooting is an absolute nightmare for the Mavs. I keep hearing how the Mavs match up so well with the Thunder because they've played them close in losing three of four. Forget it, the Thunder, like the Lakers, will be geeked to get the Mavs and will run them out of the playoffs.
That leaves the relative postseason inexperience of the trendy Clippers (although the Mavs know well that CP3 can do postseason damage). This matchup remains a possibility, although the odds are getting longer. The Mavs would have to move back up to the sixth spot and the Clips would have to pass the Lakers, who hold the tiebreaker. Still, it's not out of the question.
The Mavs, on experience and gumption, would take this series in six games even with the Clips holding the home-court edge. Start the comparison on the bench, where Rick Carlisle will hold a coaching clinic against Vinny Del Negro.
When you peel back Lob City's sensational athleticism, the matchups actually fall in Dallas' favor beyond Paul at the point. Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan don't have polished post-up games and both are horrendous free-throw shooters, which is a tremendous disadvantage when games are tight and time is ticking down.
Plus, because Jordan is not an offensive threat, the Mavs benefit by being able to use the 7-foot, 263-pound body of center Brendan Haywood to muscle up on the 6-10, 251-pound Griffin. This strategy worked well during the regular season with Griffin averaging 16.3 points a game, about four points below his season average. To pound home the free-throw point, Griffin was 5-of-22 from the line in three games this season.
It would be reckless to underestimate Paul's brilliance in a playoff series, but overall the Clippers are not an offensive machine, ranking 13th in the league at 97.4 points a game. And it's not as though they have a shut-down defense either.
Combine the Clippers' postseason inexperience, their big men's lack of a consistent half-court game and awful free-throw shooting, and the Mavs will be able to nullify L.A.'s athleticism over a best-of-seven series and advance to the second round.
Mavs OK with OKC
But, if there's one opponent the Mavs don't fear and wouldn't mind playing in the first round of the playoffs, it's Oklahoma City.
Marion, one of the league's best defenders, makes every aspect of the game difficult for Durant. The proof is in the stats.
Durant made more than 50 percent of his shots in only one game against the Mavs, and he was a combined 13-of-37 in the past two games. If Durant doesn't go off, then any team has a chance to beat the Thunder.
Oklahoma City may have beaten the Mavs three times, but they held at least a 10-point lead in three of the games. In the one game they didn't win, the Mavs trailed 87-85 with 1:46 left.
See, Dallas has been positioned to beat Oklahoma City in every game they've played this season, and if you throw in the psychological boost from eliminating the Thunder in five games last season in the Western Conference finals, then you see why the Mavs have no issue facing the Thunder.
The Mavs won't panic if they're down by double digits, and the Thunder's raucous home crowd will have little effect on the Mavs' veterans.
Dallas has been consistently inconsistent this season for a variety of reasons. With eight players older than 30 they should perform better in the playoffs when they have a day or two off between most games.
They've struggled to win on the road and, aside from Nowitzki, the Mavs don't have a consistent scorer.
There's not much tangible evidence they will have success in the playoffs.
But so much about pro sports is about confidence. The Mavs believe they can beat Oklahoma City, and that mindset would help them in a matchup against the Thunder.