To borrow an analogy from the world of golf, NBA regular seasons are for show. The NBA Playoffs are for dough.
The Oklahoma City Thunder certainly put on a show this regular season. Racking up 47 victories (third best in the NBA), producing the league's leading scorer (Kevin Durant), leader in blocked shots (Serge Ibaka) and the league's second most efficient offense.
But none of that will define the Thunder's 2011-12 campaign. The next two months will.
After reaching the Western Conference Finals last season, OKC became a legitimate NBA Championship contender. That's not to say that it's Title-or-bust for this group, but anything less than a return trip to the WCF would certainly be seen as a step backwards.
That said, let's take a look at OKC's round one matchup with defending champion Dallas.
The good (very good) news: Tyson Chandler's interior defense and J.J. Barea's instant offense no longer a concern. Both men gave OKC fits in last year's Western Conference Finals. Chandler prevented Russell Westbrook from getting to the rim. Barea kept the Thunder's defense scrambling.
The absence of both, a big reason the Thunder took three of four games from Dallas in the regular season.
The not-so-good news: some guy named Dirk Nowitzki still plays for the Mavs. The NBA Finals MVP is an all-time great and OKC really has no answer for the Big German when he's on his game. Nowitzki's late-game, halfcourt offense and Dallas' zone defense were Thunder-killers in last season's WCF, especially in the 4th quarter.
The bottom line: The Thunder is younger and more talented than the defending champs. Dallas simply doesn't have the horses to slow down Durant, Westbrook and Harden all at the same time. If OKC plays hard on defense and unselfish on offense, the Mavs championship reign is coming to an end. But if the Thunder plays with a lack of focus and allows Dallas to hang around late into the 4th quarter of games, the Mavs' experience and Nowitzki's late-game dominance could prove fatal.
The Mavs aren't the same team that won the title last season, but as Rudy Tomjanovich once said, "never underestimate the heart of a champion." If the Thunder wants to become a champion itself, it better heed that advice.
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