If maturity matters, West is no contest
Veteran Mavs are major mismatch for young Thunder when it comes to experience
That year conjures up memories of kindergarten for Oklahoma City co-stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City also depends heavily on pogo-stick power forward Serge Ibaka and sixth man James Harden, a couple of players even younger than their terrific 22-year-old tandem.
Suffice it to say that the experience edge in the Western Conference finals can be found south of the Red River. And it sticks out like a burnt orange shirt in Oklahoma.
The veteran-loaded Mavericks roster, which has been resting for the last week after sweeping the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, entered the postseason with almost three times as much playoff experience as the Thunder. The Thunder closed that gap a little -- and, they believe, grew up a lot -- in this grueling seven-game series with the rugged Grizzlies.
"The age is kind of out the window right now," Westbrook said after putting up a triple-double in Sunday's 105-90 win in front of a frenzied home crowd. "Now I think we've grown up together. We're getting better. As long as we stay humble and stay together and continue to work, I think this team is going to make that next jump."
We'll see whether age is out the window the first time the score is tight in crunch time of the West finals, a series that matches a young team considered a favorite of the future against an old squad whose championship window is close to closing.
Dallas, with the exception of the Mavs' Game 4 meltdown in Portland, has been absolutely dominant in clutch situations during the playoffs. The Mavs have outscored foes by 29 points in 19 minutes during the playoffs when the score is within five points in the final five minutes.
They've put on clutch execution clinics with savvy graybeard Kidd in control and 13-year veteran Dirk Nowitzki scoring almost at will. The Mavs' defense in such situations has been even more impressive than their offense, beginning with Kidd & Co. shutting down Kobe Bryant, widely considered the game's best closer.
Oklahoma City, on the other hand, has often looked like an inexperienced team with a point guard learning on the job with the game on the line. Although the Thunder won the Game 4 triple-overtime marathon in Memphis, it provided plenty of evidence that Westbrook had a lot to learn.
For about 43 minutes each game, Westbrook's awe-inspiring athleticism could create major problems for the Mavs, although he performed poorly while Dallas won two of three games during the regular-season series. In the final five minutes, if the score is close, Kidd's basketball IQ might present the biggest mismatch of the series.
Of course, experience guarantees nothing. The baby-faced Hornets proved that a few years ago by buzzing past the Mavs in the first round. The three teams with the most playoff experience -- the Lakers, Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs -- will watch the conference finals from home or the exotic vacation destination of their choice.
As far as anybody in the Thunder's locker room is concerned, they got the experience they needed by dismissing the Denver Nuggets and Grizzlies in the first two rounds.
"All this stuff is great for our team's development," said Thunder forward Nick Collison, a valuable glue guy off the bench who provides a veteran presence along with ring-owning centers Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed. "As long as we realize if we play basketball every possession and not worry about anything else, I think we'll be all right."
Oklahoma City's kids certainly showed no signs of stage fright Sunday afternoon. Durant, Westbrook and Harden were all outstanding in the biggest game of their brief NBA careers.
Durant left no doubt that he was mentally tough enough to bounce back from a bad Game 6 performance. He came out determined to attack, didn't let up after a slow start and finished with 39 points. He made 13 of 25 shots from the floor despite missing seven of his nine attempts in the first quarter.
2011 NBA Finals: Champion Mavericks
Game 1: Heat 92, Mavericks 84
Game 2: Mavericks 95, Heat 93
Game 3: Heat 88, Mavericks 86
Game 4: Mavericks 86, Heat 83
Game 5: Mavericks 112, Heat 103
Game 6: Mavericks 105, Heat 95
More: Mavs Center » Mavs Blog »
Westbrook stuffed the box score with 14 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. LeBron James, as a 21-year-old in 2006, was the only younger player to have a playoff triple-double in the past two decades.
Harden had 17 points and four steals off the bench. He combined with Durant to key the run late in the third quarter that essentially killed the Grizzlies' comeback hopes. Oklahoma City outscored the Grizzlies by 24 points in Harden's 31 minutes.
"We're a mature group," Durant said. "We never try to let the pressure get to us. One thing we did coming into this game is stick to playing our game. Stick to the things that got us here, and whatever happens, happens."
If what happens in the West finals is a battle of wits, the Thunder's kids are likely to learn a tough lesson from Kidd and the rest of the been-there-before Mavs.
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.