OKLAHOMA CITY -- Oklahoma City's penalty for scuffling down the stretch and getting passed for the top seed in the Western Conference is a first-round playoff showdown with an all-too-familiar foe toting championship credentials.
When the Dallas Mavericks arrive for Game 1 on Saturday night, it'll be a rematch of last season's West finals dominated by Dirk Nowitzki on his way to his first NBA title.
Nowitzki averaged 32.2 points against Oklahoma City in last year's playoffs to outduel Kevin Durant, who just became the seventh player in NBA history to win three straight league scoring titles. The Mavericks won that series 4-1, winning both games in Oklahoma City.
"It's all we've been looking forward to for a long time," Durant said Friday. "It's going to be a tough, tough series for us playing against the reigning champions. They cause so many problems on the offensive end and defensive end for us."
The biggest one is Nowitzki, the 7-foot German who took over games in the fourth quarter -- averaging 11.8 points -- and handled every defender the Thunder tried on him. He also shot 61 free throws in the series, making all but two.
"He's an amazing player but we have to defend him without fouling him," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "He averages only six free throws per game, and that's just way too many.
"He's a tough guard. He's a tough guy to cover. He does so many things well. He extends the defence with his amazing 3-point shooting, his post-up game, his drive game, his free throws."
While the Thunder are largely the same squad -- substitute veteran Derek Fisher for injured backup point guard Eric Maynor -- many of the faces have changed on the Dallas sideline. Gone are Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and Peja Stojakovic from the supporting cast that helped Nowitzki win it all.
"There are a number of guys that did great things for them last year that just aren't there. At the same time, they're still a veteran team and a smart team," said Fisher, who won five NBA titles with a Los Angeles Lakers team that got swept by the Mavs last season.
"Any team that has won a championship in recent years -- you still have Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion -- they're still very capable."
The underdog role is unusual for an NBA champion, particularly with so much of its star power back. With Vince Carter, Ian Mahinmi and Delonte West filling support roles and a failed experiment with Lamar Odom coming over from the Lakers, the Mavs went 22-22 over the final two-thirds of the season and had to hold on to get into the playoffs as the seventh seed.
"It's a different year," coach Rick Carlisle said. "We've had a challenging year, a lot of difficult things here and there."
The Thunder won three of the four meetings this season, needing Durant's 3-pointer at the buzzer to claim one of the victories in Oklahoma City.
"We just know that we have a lot of respect for what they do and what they accomplished last season," Brooks said. "They've got a lot of veteran guys who went through a lot of playoff battles to get what they got to last year, winning the championship."
To a degree, that's what Oklahoma City is trying to accomplish. The franchise, still in Seattle at the time, started from scratch when it picked Durant No. 2 in 2007 and has since built through the draft with All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, top-scoring reserve James Harden and NBA blocks leader Serge Ibaka.
The Thunder were eliminated in the first round two years ago, made it to the conference finals a year ago and want to keep climbing.
"Nothing's guaranteed. Just because we made it last year doesn't mean we're going to make it again," Durant said.
Oklahoma City went 7-7 down the stretch, losing the top seed in the West to the San Antonio Spurs in the process.
"That's the bad thing about having success too early with a young team. It can be hard to focus, knowing that you've not really accomplished what you need to accomplish," said centre Kendrick Perkins, who previously won a championship with Boston.
"When guys pretty much figured that we couldn't get the No. 1 spot, you could tell the focus wasn't there. But that's not an excuse for the way we ended this season. I just know that we do have another level."
The Thunder tried to get back that focus with a film session Thursday night and a longer-than-planned practice on Friday. Perhaps most lacking was defence. Even with the starters continuing to play, Oklahoma City gave up 40 and 36 points in the first quarter in its last two games -- the worst defensive performances of the season.
"It takes time to be at your best and I don't think we're going to be at our best in Game 1," Fisher said. "We just have to continue to push and continue to believe in what you're doing, the things that got you there, the things that earned you 47 out of 66 wins and the No. 2 spot in the West."
NOTES: Harden didn't want to weigh in on whether Metta World Peace's seven-game suspension was an appropriate punishment for elbowing him in the back of the head and causing a concussion. "That's the NBA's job. I'm a basketball player," Harden said. ... Fisher said he has been in touch with Odom, his former teammate who stepped away from the Mavericks this season for personal reasons, several times this season and even texted him when the Oklahoma City-Dallas series was finalized Thursday night. "Having played with him, it's definitely much better for us that he's not there," Fisher said.