OKLAHOMA CITY — Much will be made of the Thunder and Mavericks adding another layer to the playoff rivalry that began last season in the Western Conference finals, where the Mavericks cemented their supremacy on the way the franchise’s first Larry O’Brien trophy.
But there is on glaring omission from the festivities this time around. When the Mavericks take the floor tonight at Chesapeake Arena tonight they’ll do so without the defensive anchor that championship team leaned on considerably in the postseason, especially against the Thunder.
Knicks center Tyson Chandler is the Miami Heat’s problem this time around. Brendan Haywood is working in his place now. And no matter how much the Thunder try to convince themselves that Haywood brings the same sort of rim-protecting ferocity to the party, it’s just not true.
“There’s no question Tyson is one of the best defensive bigs in the league and has obviously done a great job in New York, but Haywood is also a very unique player, he’s a very strong low-post player and protects the basket in different ways,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “But we still have to look forward to getting good shots and be very intelligent in our drives and know when to pull up and when to pass out of it. We have to take good shots, because Dallas plays zone and we have to be able to attack that.”
Chandler’s inside work in the middle of Rick Carlisle‘s’ zone scheme is what allowed the Mavericks to play shut down defense on the perimeter. The Thunder collapsed down the stretch offensively in Games 4 and 5 of the conference finals last season, blowing big leads in both games as they ran out of fight in a series that up until then looked like it might go the distance.
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, as good as they are, were unable to shoot and score the Thunder out of that hole once Chandler and the Mavericks’ defense locked on. None of the Thunder’s bigs — Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nazr Mohammed or Nick Collison — was able to neutralize Chandler, who did battle foul trouble throughout the series.
Thunder guard Derek Fisher got a taste of the Mavericks with Chandler last season as well, the Mavericks swept the Lakers in the conference semifinals. So he knows just how difficult a team the Mavericks were to attack with Dirk Nowitzki shredding your defense on one end and Chandler manning the middle on the other. And he doesn’t see a significant drop off in what they do now.
“I think they have figured out a way, even without Chandler’s protection at the basket, to be a really solid defensive teams,” he said. “They have a lot of smart, veteran players, so they know how to defend the floor and take things away from teams. They’ve still been able to do that this season.”
We’ll find out tonight if the Thunder have come up with a solution to that problem tonight. They’ve had roughly 10 months to think about it. It should be an easier task without Chandler around, at least on paper.