Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Updated: May 25, 7:04 PM ET
Thunder will be a force for a long time
By Tim MacMahon
DALLAS -- The Dallas Mavericks do not need external influences to create a sense of urgency.
Their nine-man rotation, led by a gray-haired, all-time-great point guard, has a combined 103 seasons of NBA experience and zero championship rings. It's been five long, hard, heartbreaking years since the franchise's only Finals appearance, so even though the Dallas roster has been totally renovated around Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry in that time, nobody needs to remind the Mavericks of the importance of seizing the moment.
But there is also this: The Mavs better beat the Oklahoma City Thunder now.
Not necessarily now, as in Game 5, although Jason Kidd's 38-year-old legs could use all the rest they can get before he has to chase around Dwyane Wade (or Derrick Rose) during the NBA Finals. But the Mavs better get their licks in on their little brothers up Interstate 35 before these adolescent Thunder are all grown up.
Oklahoma City has already made quantum leaps in the past few years, climbing from 23 wins to 50 wins and a first-round exit to 55 wins and a trip to the Western Conference finals.
The Thunder have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with while relying on a tandem of terrific 22-year-olds (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) to carry the team and two players even younger (Serge Ibaka and James Harden) to play major roles.
To put the Thunder's talent in local perspective, Oklahoma City's four most talented, productive players are younger than promising, peach-fuzz-faced Mavs guard Rodrigue Beaubois.
"They're going to get better and better every year," said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, who added that 34-year-old general manager Sam Presti has done "miraculous work" by creating a roster that is flooded with young talent and still has financial flexibility.
As this series has shown, the Thunder still have so much room to learn and grow.
The smart, savvy, old-school Mavs have exposed the Oklahoma City superstars' flaws. Here's a silver lining for the loyal fans who chanted, "OKC! OKC!" as the Thunder left the floor after blowing a 15-point lead -- and their realistic hopes of winning the series -- during Monday's Game 4: These lessons could be tremendously beneficial for Durant and Westbrook over the long haul.
This is the painful part of the process of perhaps building a dynasty.
"When you get punched, you have to get up," Thunder coach Scott Brooks told Oklahoma City reporters Tuesday. "If you don't, you're not going to grow."
Durant, who is already a back-to-back scoring champion, has been pushed, shoved and ridden out of his comfort zone by rugged defenders Shawn Marion, DeShawn Stevenson and Kidd in the past two games. He's been confused by various double-teams Dallas has thrown at him. The slender Durant, already an early-morning regular in the weight room, can concentrate all summer on developing aspects of his game to counter that kind of defense.
The chance to closely study Dallas' two surefire Hall of Famers also should benefit the Thunder's whiz kids.
All Durant has to do is watch Nowitzki's work during these West finals to see one of the elite go-to guys of this generation excel during crunch time despite a defensive scheme focused on stopping him. (Ibaka, the elite shot-blocker with pogo-stick hops, believes he'll also benefit from the often humiliating experience of defending Dirk. Ibaka admitted getting taken to "class" after Nowitzki's 48-point Game 1 performance.)
Westbrook is one of the league's most explosive players, but he's also early in the unenviable process of learning how to play point guard in the NBA after playing off the ball at UCLA. His decision-making has been under the microscope all postseason. He will get no better study guide than the game film of Kidd running the show while contributing as a scorer, rebounder, defender and facilitator during the Mavs' rally across the Red River.
"There are so many areas that they can improve," Mavs big man Tyson Chandler said of Durant and Westbrook, his USA teammates last summer. "You can look at both of them, and they still are babies. They still don't understand the game, just because of experience. That comes with time. They will.
"Hopefully I'm here every year, but I know they will be."
The Mavs' championship window will be at least cracked open as long as Nowitzki is in his prime. His game doesn't rely on athleticism, and his best assets -- size and shooting touch -- won't fade with time, so that could well be another few years or more.
The Mavs might even be better next season -- if they keep free agent Chandler and re-sign a healthy Caron Butler and/or have Beaubois recover from his confidence crisis and figure out how to use his dynamic athleticism and skills to be a difference-maker.
But bank on this: Oklahoma City will be an obstacle for a long time. And beating the Thunder isn't going to get any easier.
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.