The Oklahoma City Thunder advanced to the second round of the 2024 NBA playoffs with a sweep over the New Orleans Pelicans. It was their first playoff series win since 2016.

The Thunder are led by their young trio of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jalen Williams, and Chet Holmgren. All three had a great debut series against New Orleans. OKC held the Pelicans to below a 90-point average in four games. Amid a week-long break, OKC found out its Round 2 opponent.

On Friday, the Dallas Mavericks clinched their first-round series over the LA Clippers in Game 6. The star duo of Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving had a loud postseason debut to carry Dallas to the series win. They both averaged 25-plus points in the six contests.

Before the series starts with Game 1 from Paycom Center on Tuesday, I will preview the series and, break down matchups X-factors and pencil in a series prediction for the second-round matchup:

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander vs. Luka Doncic

The second-round series will be headlined by the matchup of the two MVP finalists. Gilgeous-Alexander and Doncic are the head of the snake for their respective offenses. They’re both top-five players this season; how they play will decide how this series plays out.

If Gilgeous-Alexander can be an efficient 30-point scorer, that should boost OKC’s odds of advancing past the second round. In four games this season, the 25-year-old averaged 22 points on 52% shooting against Dallas. Those numbers need to jump in this playoff series.

Against the Pelicans, Gilgeous-Alexander averaged 27.3 points on 48% shooting. This should indicate that he can return to his efficient 30-plus points against the Mavericks, who don’t possess the perimeter defenders New Orleans does.

Meanwhile, Doncic — like he does against the rest of the league — cooked the Thunder in both games he played against them this season. He averaged 34 points on 56% shooting. The 25-year-old will get his numbers against OKC regardless.

Lu Dort can cause trouble, but there’s only so much he can do against arguably the best iso-scorer in the league. The Thunder will have to counter this with their franchise star putting up monster numbers against Dallas.

How The Thunder Handle Kyrie Irving

Doncic will draw most of the attention, but his co-star Irving is equally dangerous. The 32-year-old is one of the best guards of his generation, with plenty of deep playoff runs. He had a monster series against the Clippers, averaging 26.5 points on 51% shooting.

Against the Thunder in two games this season, Irving averaged 30.5 points on 62% shooting. OKC will need to lower those numbers if it wants to advance. The Thunder can’t let Irving get inferno-hot throughout most of the series. The two-star duo of Doncic and Irving is talented enough to carry Dallas to another series win.

A combination of Lugentz Dort, Jalen Williams, and Cason Wallace will likely draw most of Irving’s defensive assignments. The trio has to stay disciplined and avoid fouling him when he possesses the ball. They also need to avoid giving him a free lane to the basket, as he’s one of the best finishers in the league.

Just like Doncic, Irving will get his numbers. But the Thunder can limit his efficiency and turn him into a high-volume scorer. If they do that, then OKC has a chance to advance.

Limit Daniel Gafford, Dereck Lively II

A notable weakness for the Thunder has been their struggles against athletic rolling bigs. They’ve been hindrances to OKC as its small roster struggles to limit lob threats — especially those who can keep up at a fast tempo.

Gafford and Lively II are textbook rim-running centers who won’t be played off the court due to slow speed. Gafford averaged 15.7 points on 62% shooting and 11 rebounds in three games against OKC. 

Lively II averaged 12 points on 92% shooting and nine rebounds in two games against OKC.

If the Thunder can’t limit their paint touches, the Mavericks will spam Doncic and Irving in pick-and-rolls with them until OKC creates a counter. This could cause a scenario where Dallas generates easy looks at will, and OKC is forced to play outside of its preferred style by going large.

Holmgren and the Thunder’s backup bigs must quickly dispel this before it’s a severe issue as the series progresses. The rookie center’s rim protection will be tested against Lively II and Gafford.

Josh Giddey’s Playability

Dallas painfully ignored Giddey from the perimeter in the Thunder’s worst season loss. He shot 3-of-9 from 3 but took the shots that Dallas wanted OKC to take on the way to a lopsided win.

Since then, Giddey has flipped a switch. Instead of settling on the perimeter, he’s begun to catch-and-go with the ball with successful drives to the basket. He didn’t get a chance to do that against the Pelicans. He shot 5-of-10 at the rim and took most of his shots on jumpers. The outside shot fell for Giddey in Round 1; he shot 50% from 3 on 4.5 attempts.

Dallas will likely dare Giddey to continue to beat it from outside. If he can stay hot from 3-point land, that’s a massive positive for the Thunder. It will force the Mavericks to reconsider their sag-off approach.

However, the more realistic case is that the 21-year-old suffers from regression.

Giddey must be a downhill scorer and an off-ball slasher if that happens. He will need to use his 6-foot-8 frame to utilize size advantages both on and off the ball for scoring opportunities. If he can’t do that, he runs the serious risk of being unplayable as the series progresses.

Mark Daigneault vs. Jason Kidd

The coaching gap in this series is massive — at least from the outside looking in. Daigneault has risen in the ranks as one of the best minds in the league. The 39-year-old was recognized for this with his Coach of the Year win.

Meanwhile, Kidd has faced scrutiny during his time with the Mavericks. In his defense, only a little is needed with a star duo of Doncic and Irving. Those two alone eat up most of the offensive possessions. Sometimes, a good coach understands that it’s OK to let their star players carry them to success, which has happened with the Mavericks.

For most possible playoff matchups, the Thunder will enjoy the coaching advantage. That is the case here against Kidd. Daigneault has done a masterful job at staying true to their identity and successfully carried that over to the playoffs.

This should improve OKC’s chances of moving past the second round. Daigneault will strengthen the margins, and his ability to get the best out of every possession — especially at the end of quarters — should help the Thunder in close contests throughout the series.

X-factor: Mavericks Role Players

Against the Clippers, the duo of Doncic and Irving conducted over half of Dallas’ points in the series. The Mavericks are a top-heavy squad with one of the best two-player scoring punches in the league.

Doncic and Irving will get their numbers; it’ll be up to the rest of the roster to win on the margins. If the Thunder can blanket the Mavericks’ supporting cast, they should have a serious shot to win the series.

If role players like P.J. Washington, Tim Hardaway Jr., Lively II, and Derrick Jones Jr. are productive, that suddenly puts OKC in a tough spot. Doncic and Irving will have more room to operate, which is a dangerous scenario for the Thunder.

On the flip side, if the Thunder’s role players have another strong series, that should jump their odds to advance. OKC is deep enough that multiple bench players can randomly go off in any game of the series and swing it toward its favor.

If Dort can keep his hot shooting and bench players like Wallace, Isaiah Joe, and Aaron Wiggins have strong outings on both sides of the floor, the Thunder’s depth should overwhelm the Mavericks — even if Doncic and Irving have monster series.

Series Prediction

This will be a significant upgrade to opponent difficulty for the Thunder. A Round 1 matchup against the Zion-less Pelicans was an easy sweep for OKC.

A matchup of the Mavericks will be a battle of heavyweights. The Thunder have the depth but need to be more experienced. Meanwhile, the Mavericks have the playoff experience but are top-heavy with little depth.

This could come down to who has two of the three best players in this series. On paper, that could be the Mavericks. But this could be a breakout series for Williams. The 23-year-old had an impressive playoff debut and served as the closer for Game 4 against the Pelicans.

This should be a back-and-forth series. Both teams are on equal footing, as the Mavericks have been among the best teams in the league since the All-Star break. The Thunder has consistently been one of the best teams this season, only suffering one three-game losing streak.

The Thunder must be on their A-game; this team is talented and mature enough to do so. It should be a strong series for most of their starters and rotation players.

Prediction: Thunder in 6