NBA Playoffs Preview: Thunder vs. Mavericks

Both teams have eliminated the other from the playoffs recently. Which team will prevail this time?

It took until the last game on the last night of the regular season to finalize this matchup but without further ado, the NBA presents the Oklahoma City Thunder versus the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2016 NBA playoffs.

The Thunder have been riddled with injuries over the past few years, but it appears that they are as healthy as any team in the league right now. After missing almost all of last season, Kevin Durant only had one stretch of six games that he sat out due to injury.

Staying healthy has been crucial for Oklahoma City.

There was reason to worry from the middle of February to the middle of March as OKC went 4-8 over that stretch. They lost two games against the Warriors and Clippers where late in both games they had over 95% chance to win. However, the Thunder were able to regroup from the bad stretch and reel off eight straight victories.

Dallas hasn't been as lucky this year in the injury department. Chandler Parsons started the year on a big minutes restriction and when he was completely back to his dominant self, Parsons went down with a knee injury that required surgery. He is hoping to come back later in the playoffs if the Mavericks win a round or two.

Similar to the Thunder, the Mavericks had a really tough stretch where they were 33-28 on March 3rd, and then on March 27th, they held a record of 35-38. With their playoff hopes dwindling, the Mavericks closed out the season by winning seven of nine games.

Both teams have eliminated the other from the playoffs in the past five years. Which team will come out on top this time? Let's take a closer look.

Oklahoma City Thunder (3)

Record: 55-27
nERD: 69.5
Championship Odds: 7.1%

Dallas Mavericks (6)

Record: 42-40
nERD: 50.1
Championship Odds: 0.2%

Regular Season Series - Thunder 4, Mavericks 0

Oklahoma City swept Dallas in the four games that they faced off in the regular season: two games decided by just 3 points and the other two were 19- and 13-point games.

The most interesting game was the second game of the season series when Russell Westbrook was ejected after a second technical foul. Westbrook and Jose Juan Barea got tangled up, and it led to a brief skirmish on the court. Charlie Villanueva was also ejected for grabbing Westbrook's throat as players were getting separated.

We probably won't see something like this again, but you never know. The playoffs are always more intense in must-win situations.

As far as player matchups, the only major difference is that Parsons played in all four games against the Thunder, so Dallas' current roster will be a new look for Oklahoma City.

How the Thunder Can Win

The Thunder have struggled the entire season with closing out games. It has been well documented that they have blown a league-leading 13 fourth-quarter leads this year. In order to beat the Mavericks, or any playoff opponents for that matter, Oklahoma City has to be able to put teams away when they have the opportunity.

It is easy to get caught up watching Westbrook and Durant, but Oklahoma City is extremely good on the offensive glass. They have an Offensive Rebounding Rate of 31.1%, which is the best in the NBA. If the Thunder can haul in offensive rebounds at the rate they have this season, they will be a tough opponent for anyone.

Thunder Player to Watch - Enes Kanter

Everyone knows what Westbrook and Durant are going to do. However, Enes Kanter has been one of the most under-appreciated players in the league this year. He ranks 11th in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating, and according to our nERD metrics, Kanter ranks 13th with a score of 9.7, which indicates how many wins above or below .500 a player would make an average team over a full season, based on his efficiency.

Kanter isn't known for his defense, but he is one of the best offensive big men in the league. He is the main reason the Thunder are so good with offensive rebounds, as he has a league-leading Offensive Rebounding Rate of 16.8%.

When given the opportunity, Kanter has excelled for the Thunder. He only plays about 21 minutes per game, so his total stats are lower than most, but his per-minute stats are with the best in the league.

Plus-minus is by no means the most telling stat out there, but in games that Kanter was plus-one or worse, Oklahoma City had a record of 21-22. In games that he was higher than plus-one, the Thunder's record was 34-5.

How the Mavericks Can Win

The Mavericks can win the series if they dominate the turnover battle. Simply put, they rarely turn the ball over and the Thunder turn it over at the third-highest rate in the NBA. Dallas has the second-best turnover ratio in the league with just 13.1 turnovers per 100 possessions while Oklahoma City commits 15.9 turnovers over 100 possessions. That difference may not seem very large, but three turnovers a game can be the difference in winning and losing in the playoffs.

One other big factor for the Mavericks is to get and stay healthy. Deron Williams has missed a lot of time down the stretch, and now Barea and Devin Harris are banged up as well. Winning a playoff series without a healthy roster is not an easy task. They are already missing Parsons for the series and can't afford to be down any more bodies.

Mavericks Player to Watch - Deron Williams

 Williams is the floor general for the Mavericks team. He has dealt with injuries all year but should be good to go for this series.

The Mavs and Thunder faced off four times in the regular season, and there were two close games and two double-digit wins for the Thunder. In the two close games, Williams scored 20 points with 6 assists and then 22 points with 5 assists. He didn't play in one of the other losses, and in the other, he scored just 14 points to go with 6 assists.

In order for Dallas to have a decent shot in the series, Williams has to play at the top of his game.

Series Prediction

I believe the series will be closer than a lot of people think. Oklahoma City is definitely the better team, but I think there will be only one game that is a double-digit win.

If Dallas can stay healthy and force Oklahoma City to turn the ball over, they should be able to keep the games close and give themselves a shot down the stretch. Plus, with so many blown fourth-quarters leads, you never know what the Thunder will do at the end of a game.

According to our algorithms: Oklahoma City Thunder are 76.48% favorites.

My final prediction: Thunder in 5.