For the first time in years, the Lakers aren't in the Western Conference Finals.
Instead, to many experts' surprise, the Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder will battle in a best-of-seven competition to see who goes to the NBA Finals, to face either the Bulls or Heat.
The Mavericks have home court advantage, and they will host the Thunder tonight in Game One.
It's the I-35 series, as the two cities are only about a three-and-a-half hour drive apart on the Interstate freeway.
HOW THE TWO TEAMS STACK UP:
The best player on the court is Kevin Durant, and the Mavericks will use a combination of players to guard the 6'10 sharpshooter. Durant has long arms, and has a quick release, and it will be a task for Shawn Marion, Corey Brewer, and Peja Stojakovic, though Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler will help out.
Durant should have a big Game One and a big series. Aside from Game Six, Durant was his typical dominant self against the Grizzlies in the second round.
The Thunder tend to lose when Durant doesn't make many trips to the free-throw line, where he is an 88-percent shooter. The Mavericks are slower than the Thunder, but they would probably be better served by limiting Durant's chances at the line.
While the Thunder have a star in Durant, the Mavericks have a determined big man in Nowitzki. Like Durant, Nowitzki is an excellent perimeter shooter, but also is effect at hitting fall away shots. It will be up to athletic forward Serge Ibaka to contain Nowitzki.
Nowitzki has yet to have a bad game in the playoffs, and with a long rest, he might be at his best in this series. How the Thunder defend Nowitzki might be the difference in the series. In three playoff games where Nowitzki has scored 30 points or more, the Mavericks have won.
Though Durant and Nowitzki mean a great deal for their teams, the player that will likely make the biggest difference in the series is Russell Westbrook.
The Mavericks don't have a player who matches up well with him. Veteran Jason Kidd will be called upon to guard Westbrook more than anyone, and that's not good for Dallas. While Westbrook is capable of blazing past defenders, Kidd at age 38, will look to slow the game down. That will allow Westbrook to preserve his energy by playing more team defense rather than one-on-one defense.
It will be up to Jason Terry to make up for the potential offensive outbursts from Westbrook. The Mavericks will need Terry to be sharp from three-point range, and help Kidd guard Westbrook.
What will be particularly interesting is Westbrook's decision making. The young guard tends to compensate for his questionable pass and shot selection by using his athleticism to break down opponents.
Sometimes this strategy works, and sometime it doesn't. It also can take Durant and others out of their game.
Smart basketball from Westbrook is probably the most important element of this series.
GAME ONE PREDICTION: The Mavericks start the game cold, and the Thunder take a halftime lead due to Durant getting involved early, and Westbrook creating opportunities for his teammates. But the Mavericks chip away in the fourth quarter. Nowitzki has a clutch performance, and Stojakovic hits some key outside shots.
SCORE PREDICTION: Dallas 101, Oklahoma City 98.
SERIES PREDICTION: Dallas in Seven.