2012 NBA Playoff Preview: Thunder Face Defending Champion Mavericks

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 23: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder dunks the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Oklahoma City Arena on May 23, 2011 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook hope to lead the young guns against the former champs.

The playoffs are now upon us and for the first time in their existence the Oklahoma City Thunder have title expectations. We are not talking if everything broke right and they played above themselves they can make the NBA Finals but rather they are hailed as legitimate contenders for the title. If the Thunder do not make the NBA Finals this season is going to be a disappointment. If they do not have a repeat performance matching last season's Western Conference appearance than this season is a disaster. There is no way around it. That is what comes with the territory. They are no longer the nice story of the relocated team with the nice young players. With great power comes great responsibility. With more success comes increased expectations. This is now the world the Thunder live in.

These increased expectations start with the #2 seed Thunder taking on the #7 defending NBA Champions Dallas Mavericks in the 1st round. The Thunder took the season series 3-1 vs. Mavs in some very entertaining games. When comparing these two teams and their seasons they had this past season it is clear which is the superior team. If you go position by position with the starting line-ups the Thunder have an advantage at 4 of the position. The only one they don't is PF where Dirk Nowitzki always has the advantage.

The one pit fall lying in wait for the Thunder in this series is the bench play. The Thunder have the Sixth Man of the Year and scoring machine James Harden. But after running his head and jaw into Metta World Peace's elbow has put a lot of question marks around how effective he will be early in the playoffs. Not to mention that the Mavericks have Jason Terry who can cancel out the advantage that the Thunder usually get when they go to the bench.

The bench play at the forward and center also come out to a wash in this match up. The big place where the Mavericks can exploit the Thunder is at the back up point guard spot. Early in the year I cautioned that the season ending injury to Eric Maynor could have an unforeseen negative impact on the Thunder. If it is the case it is going to happen vs. the Mavericks. Derek Fisher was a could move to sure up your back up for Russell Westbrook. But this is not the Derek Fisher who was hitting game winning shots for the Lakers during their title run. I look for Roddy Beaubois to have his way with Fisher in this series.

That being said I do not think that Beaubois youthful legs and Dirk being a freak of nature are enough to derail this Thunder train from the 2nd round and beyond. The Mavs are defending champs and they do not die easy. If the Thunder let the Mavs hang around in these games things could get interesting. If the Mavs steal the first game of this series the pressure is clearly on the young shoulder of OKC. The Thunder need to kill the Mavs spirit from the opening tip.

Prediction: Thunder in six games.

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