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Old-but-rested Mavs await rapidly maturing Thunder
DALLAS (AP) - Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan have been through so many playoff series, they would be good sources to discuss the prevailing themes in the Western Conference finals, like how valuable experience is at this stage and whether there's such thing as too much rest between rounds.
Only, Bryant and Duncan aren't around. For just the second time since 1998, neither the Lakers nor the Spurs will represent the West in the NBA finals.
Instead, it'll either be Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and the aging-but-rested Dallas Mavericks, or Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rapidly maturing Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Mavericks are a collection of 30-somethings bonded by a collective pursuit of their first championship. They have plenty of guys who've come close to a title, including a few holdovers from the 2006 team that interrupted the collection of conference titles piled up by the Spurs and Lakers.
With strong defense and so many scoring options they never know who'll share top billing with Nowitzki, Dallas swept the two-time defending champion Lakers in the second round. The reward was a nine-day wait for Game 1 on Tuesday night.
Or maybe that was a punishment.
"That's a looong layoff," Mavs center Tyson Chandler said Monday. "Yesterday, the scrimmage got a little chippy, so it was obvious we were ready to play somebody else."
Dallas had to keep waiting because the Thunder had its hands full with the Memphis Grizzlies.
Oklahoma City went the full seven games and then some, playing three overtimes in one game and one extra period in another. While most clubs would've wanted some down time, the Thunder might be the exception. With their age and exuberance, a lone day off between series may have felt like an eternity.
"We have a young, energetic, athletic team that loves to play and wants to play every night," coach Scott Brooks said. "We're excited about being in the position that we are in. We're not 'just happy to be here' and just 'whatever happens happens.'"
Without the Lakers, and with the Eastern Conference finals featuring the newly crowned MVP and newly crowned Coach of the Year against the glitzy guys from South Beach, this series could be considered the undercard. Having clubs located 200 miles apart in the south, central part of the country certainly doesn't bode well for television ratings.
Maybe Mavs owner Mark Cuban will break his recent self-imposed silence and take shots at Oklahoma. He's lived in Texas long enough to know the enmity between Longhorns and Sooners. It's worth noting he was one of two owners to vote against the SuperSonics moving from Seattle to Oklahoma City.
Then again, the battle of headliners Dirk and Durant could be enough to drive this series.
If not, there are plenty of other good story lines.
_ Age, experience vs. youth, inexperience
The contrast in age will be talked about a lot and for good reason.
The top four scorers on the Thunder are 23 or younger. The Mavs only have two guys who are 23 or younger and neither has played this postseason.
Dallas relies on seven players in their 30s. Oklahoma City has only two guys in their 30s and both are backups.
Although no Mavericks have won a title, nearly all of them have deep reservoirs of big-game experience. The Thunder have few guys who've ever been this close to a title, but they have two guys with rings: center Kendrick Perkins (2008, Boston) and his backup, Nazr Mohammed ('05, Spurs).
"We've got to put them in position they haven't been in to be able to use that wisdom," Kidd said. "If you don't, they're just as talented as any team left in the playoffs."
_ Rest vs. rust?
Before they were put on hiatus, the Mavs had won a franchise-record six straight postseason games. It remains to be seen whether they can pick up where they left off.
In the shot-clock era, teams that have gone at least nine days between series are 9-9 in Game 1s, and 11-7 in the next round, according to research by STATS LLC.
Among the teams to win Game 1 and the series was the 2004 Pacers, coached by Rick Carlisle, who is now Dallas' coach.
"I like what we've done and I know guys are ready to play," he said.
In February 2009, Chandler was driving to the airport, bound for Oklahoma City to join the Thunder, when his phone rang. He was told to head home. Oklahoma City said he failed a physical and rescinded the deal.
He hasn't forgotten.
In three games against the Thunder this season, he had among his best scoring averages (12.7 points) and easily his most rebounds (15.3) against any team.
"You really don't need any extra incentives," he said, "but I've got some extra ones."
These teams hardly know each other.
Dallas won two of the three regular-season meetings, but that's pretty meaningless. The Mavs had Caron Butler for the first two games and didn't have Nowitzki for 1 1/2 of those games. Butler has since gone down for the season and Peja Stojakovic has arrived. The Thunder shored up its interior by adding Perkins.
All eyes will be on how each team covers the other's superstar.
Shawn Marion will start against Durant, the league's two-time reigning scoring champion, and will get help from Nowitzki and others _ perhaps even Kidd, who often covered Bryant last round. Carlisle won't expect Kidd to stay with the speedy Westbrook.
"We've got to build a wall on him," Chandler said. "It's not about one guy stopping him. It's about our team slowing him down."
Oklahoma City will start Serge Ibaka against Nowitzki, with Perkins, Mohammed, Durant, Nick Collison and James Harden among those who also may take turns against the big German.
"We have our work cut out for us," Durant said, "but it should be fun."
By John R. Bolton
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