In breaking down an NBA playoff series, you can throw away the storylines and you can throw away how each team has performed against the other 28 NBA teams. All basketball games begin with the matchups, and understanding a series starts with breaking down whose guarding whom.
In last year's Western Conference Finals between these two teams, Dallas exploited the poor jump-shooting ability of three of Oklahoma City's starters. The Mavericks packed in their defense and dared Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha to beat them from the perimeter. The story of the series was the Thunder's inability to score with a traditional line-up, as they continually dug themselves huge early deficits.
On the other end of the floor, Dirk Nowitzki abused every defender Oklahoma City sent at him, calmly shooting over the heads of his smaller opponents. Since his big men weren't having success against Dirk, Scott Brooks eventually countered by going small to improve his team's offense, which in turn gave Tyson Chandler a huge advantage on the offensive glass.
Game 4 was decided by James Harden fouling out, which shrunk the floor for Oklahoma City's two stars, while Game 5 was decided by the Thunder's inability to control their defensive glass in the last four minutes.
This year, Chandler is gone and Harden has assumed a much larger role in the offense. However, Dallas still has many of the other match-up advantages they had in 2011, which is why their first-round series should be a lot more competitive than the regular season records might indicate.
Oklahoma City runs out the same group from last season, with Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha in the back-court and Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins along the front-line. Dallas still has Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Dirk, but Delonte West takes DeShawn Stevenson's place while Brendan Hawyood is at center.
Neither Perkins nor Haywood is an offensive threat; the only real value either player has is their ability to defend low-post centers like the Lakers' Andrew Bynum. Whichever coach get his lumbering center off the court first will have the early edge.
In Haywood's place, Dallas will feature Brandan Wright, a former lottery pick who has finally emerged as an NBA player in his fifth season in the NBA. At 6'10 210, he doesn't have the bulk to defend bigger players in the post, but he can survive as a center in this series because the Thunder lack a low-post threat. Wright, who has a 7'4 wingspan, a 30' vertical leap and quick feet, is the Mavericks best-shot blocker defensively and their most dangerous center offensively; he'll need to play the bulk of the minutes at the 5.
Scott Brooks, meanwhile, will have some interesting choices if he takes Perkins out. The Thunder like to go small with Ibaka at the 5 and Durant at the 4; if he keeps Ibaka on Dirk, that will leave Durant on Wright. Rick Carlisle will try to keep Shawn Marion on Durant as much as possible; if he stashes Dirk on Ibaka, that will leave Wright defending one of the Thunder's perimeter players.
On the perimeter, Delonte West will get the defensive assignment on Russell Westbrook. Jason Kidd can be stashed on Sefolosha, but it's going to be hard for him to have much of an impact on this series. He's been Rick Carlisle's safety net, but the Mavericks are going to have cut back his minutes significantly against the Thunder.
The Thunder have the likely Sixth Man of the Year in James Harden, but the loss of Eric Maynor has left their second unit pretty thin, and the Mavericks will have to win the bench battle to have a chance.
Nick Collison can steal a lot of minutes as a reserve big man, but he's not the type of player who can shut down an opponent defensively or command the ball on the offensive side of the floor. Daequan Cook is a dangerous shooter and Derek Fisher brings "championship experience", but Harden is the only Thunder reserve likely to have much of an impact on the series.
Dallas, meanwhile, can run offense through three perimeter reserves: Jason Terry, the 2009 Sixth Man of the Year, Rodrigue Beaubois and Vince Carter.
Terry excels at the pick-and-roll and pulling up for jumpers, and he can change the game with a barrage of 3's at any point. Carter is most effective posting up smaller defenders, and Dallas will need him to matchup with Harden on both ends of the floor. Beaubois has a huge edge over Fisher at back-up point guard.
Dallas will need three players on the court in the fourth quarter: Dirk, Shawn Marion (to defend Durant) and Wright. The big question for Carlisle will be which guards see the floor. Kidd and Terry have traditionally been the team's closers, but West and Carter will be a much better defensive match-up for Westbrook and Harden respectively. Beaubois, meanwhile, is Dallas' most dangerous dribble-drive threat.
Oklahoma City will have Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka on the floor; the big question in this series is who Brooks turns to in that fifth spot. If he keeps Perkins or Sefolosha in, it will be a huge boon to Dallas as neither player can shoot; if he keeps Fisher in, he should be fired for gross incompetence. The actual tough decision would be between Cook (for shooting) or Collison (for rebounding).
Harden is the one player Dallas doesn't have an answer for: at 6'5 220, he's too big for their point guards and too fast for their shooting guards. However, he's also the Thunder's third option offensively, and he may spend a lot of his time watching Westbrook and Durant isolate, which can really stagnate Oklahoma City's offense.
The prediction: Oklahoma City in seven.