OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook didn't have to be great down the stretch to win this game. They'd already been great, Durant especially, for most of four quarters. That gave Oklahoma City a 15-point lead with less than five minutes to play, and from that point, greatness was no longer required. Mediocrity would have worked. Hell, below-average play would have gotten the job done.
But Durant and Westbrook were neither mediocre nor below average. In the final minutes, they were awful.
And Dirk Nowitzki was not.
And that's how it happened. Durant missed shots. Westbrook missed shots. Nowitzki didn't miss a damn thing. That put the game into overtime, where it continued. More misses from Westbrook and Durant. More turnovers. More Nowitzki. In the final 10 minutes of regulation and OT, Westbrook and Durant were 1 for 12 from the floor and 0 for 2 from the line, and they committed three turnovers. Nowitzki? He scored 14 points in those 10 minutes.
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That's how Dallas won, taking a larcenous 112-105 victory for a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals.
"If this loss didn't hurt," said OKC coach Scott Brooks, "there's no such thing as a loss that can hurt you."
While the Thunder's stars were imploding, Nowitzki was scoring 12 points in the final 4:34 of regulation. He missed a free throw in that stretch, but all that did was prove he's human -- because everything else he did suggested immortality. He tried four shots from the floor and made them all, the easiest a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. The others were a series of one-on-one moves against Nick Collison -- spinning, pumping, faking shots that go in, one after another after another, only if the guy shooting them is one of the best shooters to ever play the game. Which Nowitzki is.
After two relatively quiet games following his 48-point outburst in Game 1, Nowitzki scored 40 in Game 4, including two overtime-forcing free throws with 6.4 seconds left. The Oklahoma City Arena crowd of 18,203 booed the call, but on a night the Thunder got a bad whistle, this was a good one. While Collison was playing denial defense with his left hand, he snaked his right hand around Nowitzki's waist, locking the German forward in place. Dallas trailed 101-99, but not for long. Nowitzki hit the first free throw, then endured a 30-second delay while two local ball kids mopped up the sweat, taking so long that Mavericks center Tyson Chandler started snapping at the referees and finally at the kids themselves to hurry the (heck) up.
Like it mattered. Nowitzki's second free throw didn't bother hitting the rim. All net.
On that sequence, like the rest of those five minutes, Dallas didn't call a play on offense. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle didn't pretend otherwise, didn't want credit, didn't care about that. He was so impressed with his team's intelligence that he offered this tidbit when asked what he had done to engineer the comeback.
"Let the guys play," Carlisle said. "I don't know that I called any plays in that time. We've really worked at becoming a good flow team. Playoff series, set plays become tougher. Teams lock into stuff. We have a group of guys that are veterans. We have some really high-IQ guys."
And the Thunder, bless 'em, do not. They can't. A smart team simply doesn't lose -- can't lose -- a game it begins, at home, by hitting its first nine shots from the floor, and concludes with a plus-22 edge in rebounds, nine steals and nine blocked shots. How do you lose a game like that? By playing silly basketball, and the Thunder did that. The Thunder committed 25 turnovers, nine by Durant, six by Westbrook.
"We have to learn from it," Brooks said. "We struggled down the stretch with execution and turnovers. It's hard to overcome against a very good Dallas team."
It was a Dallas team that made the defensive plays it had to make. Even with the 40 points from Nowitzki and the immolation of Durant and Westbrook, you'd probably still be reading today about the narrow escape by the Thunder were it not for two risky defensive plays by Dallas' Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd.
|Kevin Durant can't get anything to go in the final moments while a huge leads goes down the drain. (Getty Images)|
The officiating, I mean. The offensive call? Not so much. Brooks and Durant gently pointed fingers at each other, Brooks saying Durant didn't play physically enough to get the ball in a better position to score -- and Durant suggesting that the play was doomed from the get-go.
Asked why he would shoot a 30-footer with several seconds still on the clock, Durant said, "I didn't have anything else to do. I caught the ball near the half-court line, three Mavericks in front of me. [Few] seconds left. I didn't know what else to do, so ... "
So he chucked it. And Marion blocked it. Overtime.
After Nowitzki carried the Mavs on offense and Marion made it stand up on defense late in regulation, Kidd provided at both ends within a 22-second span in overtime. He stripped the ball from Durant, then sank a 3-pointer with 40.3 seconds left for a 108-105 lead. After that, Westbrook and Durant were missing Oklahoma City's final shots while Jason Terry and Kidd were hitting four straight free throws.
And that's how it ended up 112-105.
But it's a bit more complicated than that. Some will say Oklahoma City choked, and they'll have a point. Did the Thunder give away Game 4? Yeah, probably. But something else happened.
The Mavericks took it.
Took this series, too, most likely. Three games remain, two of them in Dallas, and the Mavs need to win just one to get to the NBA Finals.
"Just be positive," Durant said. "It's not over yet."
Interesting final word.