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Young Thunder eager for test against rested, experienced Mavs

by | CBSSports.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- With about 30 seconds left, the standing crowd of 18,203 in Oklahoma City erupted into a chant that almost seemed like a release of two hours filled with tension and nerves.

"We-want-Dal-las! We-want-Dal-las!"

Well, you're most definitely getting them.

The Thunder took Game 7 over the Grizzlies in convincing fashion 105-90 behind a triple-double from Russell Westbrook, 39 points from Kevin Durant and 17 points from James Harden off the bench.

Westbrook, who took quite the beating over these seven games, notched the first triple-double in a Game 7 since Scottie Pippen in 1992.

"I was just trying to get my teammates as easy as shots as possible," Westbrook said. "I just always do my best to play my game. That's it. Kevin just told me not to pay attention to what any of you guys are saying."

In a series as nip-and-tuck as this one, what it finally took for the Thunder to gain the ultimate separation was spectacular play from their three best players. Surprising, I know.

And Nick Collison. Never forget about Nick Collison.

"I think Nick was probably the best player on the floor for us tonight," Durant said.

Grizzlies-Thunder: Game 7
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The stats agree. With Collison and Harden on the floor, the Thunder beat the Grizzlies 70-49. Without them, Memphis was ahead 41-35. Collison, normally a man forgotten by the box score, actually had a nice line though -- eight points, 12 rebounds and three blocks ... and a plus-21 in 33 minutes.

The game really turned in the third quarter after Harden and Collison re-entered the contest for the Thunder. In Game 6, Oklahoma City held a 10-point lead at the break but Memphis came out of the locker room cooking. In Game 7, with Scott Brooks not keen on switching his second half starting five, it was up to that group to hold on tight.

It didn't go well at first. The Thunder started 0 for 5 from the floor, picked up two technical fouls and the Grizzlies chewed into OKC's lead, getting it to four twice and three once. But OKC held on for seven minutes before its reinforcements arrived, still ahead six as Collison and Harden came back. Once that happened, the Thunder finished the quarter a plus-16.

Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said after the game that Harden and Collison were the keys throughout the series. Collison did the dirty work -- guarding Zach Randolph heroically, tipping rebounds and scoring on putbacks. Harden served almost as the perfect glue between Westbrook and Durant, giving the Thunder a third man to touch the ball and relieve some of the tension in the OKC offense.

Now, of course, it's a question as to if Collison and Harden can have a similar impact against the Mavericks. Zach Randolph turns into Dirk Nowitzki and the 46-win Grizzlies turn into a Dallas squad that just swept the defending champions right out their door.

The Thunder rose to the occasion in a big Game 7 by hitting shots, getting stops and wearing Memphis down with talent. With things becoming a bit more even, can this young group do it again? Sure, the pressure of a Game 7 was intense, but we're talking Western Conference finals here. Is it too much too soon for this team that two years ago was still supposed to be three years away?

"It's another good step for our organization," Scott Brooks said. "Our goal was, just like all the other 29 teams, is to win a championship and we're no different. We know that the process is long and hard and you can't skip steps and you don't get there quickly. To get to the conference finals is a great opportunity for our group, but it is important that we keep playing. Dallas presents a lot of problems."

Indeed they do. The further you go, the tougher it gets. The Thunder have just a couple of days to get ready to start their next series against a team that's been resting for a week.

For a franchise that was in another city three years ago and started its inaugural season 3-29 in their new home, Sunday's win is quite a sweet thing to savor. It almost seems natural to just hang a hat on this achievement and feel a sense of satisfaction.

But that raucous sea of blue sent a clear message those last 30 seconds. They want Dallas. And something tells me Durant, Westbrook, Harden and the rest of this Thunder group kind of want them too.

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