The Thunder had this.
They did just about everything they had to do from the opening tip to secure a series-evening victory against Dallas in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.
OKC jumped out to a fast start, got a superstar-level performance from its best player, and played active team defense for the vast majority of the game. The team built a lead of 15 points with 5:06 to play after what seemed like a dagger of a three-pointer at the time from Kevin Durant.
But then, and so quickly, it all came crashing down. Dallas finished regulation on a blistering 17-2 run to send it into overtime, and finished the comeback it started by pulling off an incredible 112-105 victory to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.
A slow start doomed the Thunder in Game 3, so they made sure to begin strong in this one. Oklahoma City came out firing, and made its first nine shots, on the way to an early double-digit lead. But Dallas was able to hang around thanks to 22 first-half points from Dirk Nowitzki, and after shooting almost 67 percent from the field in the second quarter, the Mavs trailed by just five at the break.
The Thunder continued to play well, however, all the way up until that fateful point in the fourth. They were aggressive defensively, and were absolute monsters on the glass, particularly on the offensive end, where they grabbed 20 rebounds compared to just five for Dallas.
But things fell apart late for Oklahoma City, seemingly right at the point when backup playmaker James Harden fouled out of the game. From 4:34 left in the fourth until the final overtime buzzer, the Mavericks outscored the Thunder 26-6.
All of a sudden, the ball movement stopped for the Thunder offensively. Shawn Marion forced Durant into difficult, heavily-contested shots. Russell Westbrook forced shots, but the blame for the collapse is far from his — there was plenty of standing around by his teammates, and the team defense of the Mavericks was simply outstanding.
And of course, there was the play of Nowitzki.
Dirk has been simply incredible this postseason, and he finished this one with his second performance of 40 points or more in this series. He had 11 of his team’s final 13 points in regulation to close the gap, scoring on a variety of ridiculously tough shots over the tight and largely solid defense of Nick Collison.
As good as Nowitzki and the Mavs were during that huge fourth quarter run, the Thunder had two chances at the end of regulation to seal it, but the execution on those possessions was just atrocious.
The first play came out of a timeout with Oklahoma City still leading by two. There was actually player movement on this possession as the team got into a set play, but the only shot the Thunder were able to get was a corner three-point attempt from Thabo Sefolosha.
The look was clean, and the pass from Durant was a good one in that situation. But it’s unconscionable with the game, and maybe the series on the line that coming out of a timeout, something can’t be drawn up to get the ball into your best player’s hands for something that resembles a decent shot.
On the Thunder’s following possession with the game tied and 6.4 seconds remaining in regulation, they got it to Durant this time, only they did so more than 30 feet from the basket. Durant panicked, and launched a contested three that Marion got a piece of, and to overtime we went.
Jason Kidd and Nowitzki finished things off once they got there, and will likely do the same to the Thunder on Wednesday in Game 5. Only this time, it will be for good, and the veterans will head to the NBA Finals, while the youngsters head home to try to learn from the experience.
Give all the credit in the world to Dallas, but really, it’s too bad for Oklahoma City. True, it’s a young and inexperienced team that has suffered from below average coaching in this series, especially on the offensive end of the floor. But with a 15-point lead, at home, with under five minutes remaining?
The Thunder had this.