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National Columnist

Grizzled Mavs use experience to get back to Finals

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DALLAS -- Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks says he hates to use his team's age as an excuse -- though he does bring it up an awful lot -- but I'm not Scott Brooks. I don't have to be phony, in other words. I can say what needs to be said, and what needs to be said is this:

The Dallas Mavericks are going to the NBA Finals because they're older than the Thunder. Not because they're more skilled or more athletic. Not because they're bigger or deeper.

But because they're older.

In the case of the Western Conference finals, older was better. The last bit of evidence was presented -- and the case was closed -- Wednesday night when the savvy, strong Mavericks rallied past the mentally fragile, physically weak Thunder 100-96 to win Game 5 and close out the series 4-1.

Thunder-Mavericks: Game 5
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"Their time will come," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said of the Thunder. "But it's not now."

This was the Mavericks' series to win because they had grown men playing against young pups. We saw it in Game 4 when the Thunder crumbled in the final five minutes, blowing a 15-point lead because Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki got so hot that it freaked out young Oklahoma City stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

And we saw it in Game 5, when the Thunder again crumbled in the final minutes.

"There's no excuse," said OKC guard James Harden. "Two great opportunities with leads, at home and on the road. No excuse."

This fold of a finish by the Thunder wasn't as dramatic as their Game 4 meltdown, but it was there. It happened. And Dallas did it to the Thunder, too -- these weren't unforced errors. This was one basketball team taking advantage of another, and it manifested itself in some startling fourth-quarter numbers. For one thing, the Thunder turned it over seven times in those 12 minutes, a number that caused the Thunder's coach to do a verbal double-take.

"We had -- I didn't realize we had seven," Brooks said when told the number. "I thought we had like five."

No, seven. Also, the Thunder did the same stupid thing they did late in Game 4, repeatedly fouling the Mavericks, putting them on the line for easy points at no cost of clock time. Oklahoma City committed seven fouls in the quarter, sending the Mavericks to the line 13 times. Dallas hit 11.

Those were some big-picture manifestations of the Thunder's inexperience, but there were specific details as well. When the skinny, undeveloped Durant needed the strength to finish a play, he didn't have it. The Thunder were trying to build on their 92-88 lead with four minutes left when Durant was stripped of the ball by Mavericks veteran Jason Kidd. The Mavs point guard is six inches shorter and 16 years older than Durant, but Kidd was guarding Durant for just such a reason -- because he has grown-man strength, whereas Durant does not.

The same thing happened with one minute left in overtime of Game 4 -- Kidd using his grown-man strength to take the ball out of Durant's hands. And there it was late in Game 5, Durant trying to get off a shot but unable to get the ball over his head.

Jason Kidd more than holds his own against Kevin Durant, despite the considerable age difference. (Getty Images)
Jason Kidd more than holds his own against Kevin Durant, despite the considerable age difference. (Getty Images)
That has been Durant's issue all postseason, and it will remain an issue until he gets his skinny body into the weight room and adds 15 pounds of muscle. Westbrook's issue will take more time to fix, because the OKC point guard is still learning the position. Another lesson came late in Game 5, when he was brilliant -- a volume shooter but also a volume scorer, with 31 points, eight rebounds and five assists -- but ruined it by making bad decisions in the final two minutes.

First, with 1:41 left and the Thunder clinging to a 94-92 lead, Westbrook got past his defender, went into the air and ... got ... stuck. What now? Westbrook didn't know, so he threw the ball toward the basket, hoping a teammate would bail him out. Didn't happen. Nowitzki stole the pass -- and that will go down as the last possession of the season that the Thunder had the ball and the lead.

The ball went the other way, and Dallas did the veteran thing again: giving the best shooter on the team, Nowitzki, the shot for the lead. It didn't work -- he missed a 3-pointer -- but Kidd snuck into the right seam to grab the offensive rebound, then found the best shooter on the team again. This time Nowitzki didn't miss. His 3-pointer gave Dallas a 95-94 advantage, its first lead of the fourth quarter.

Then Westbrook did it again. Oklahoma City needed a bucket to get the lead, slow down the Mavericks and shut up a thunderously loud crowd, but Westbrook allowed the ball to end up in reserve guard Eric Maynor's hands. Maynor averaged 4.2 points per game this season for a reason, that reason being he's not a great shooter. But it was left to Maynor to chuck the Thunder's biggest shot of the season -- and just like the 3-pointer he was foolishly allowed to take with 2:55 left and the Thunder ahead by four, this time he missed an 11-footer with 56 seconds left and the Thunder trailing by one.

That was the Thunder's most crippling possession of the game. And the Mavericks followed with their best one, a transition dunk by Marion. Durant tried to prevent it -- stop me if you've heard this before -- but he wasn't strong enough. Marion finished the dunk, got the foul and hit the free throw. It was 98-94 with 48.9 seconds left, but the gap felt wider. The time felt shorter. The game? It felt over.

"The finish, the foul, the free throw," Carlisle said, relishing the rehash of that sequence. "That gave us the breathing room we needed, and it took some wind out of their sails."

The Thunder will be back next season. They'll recover, because that's what young teams do. But next week they'll watch Dallas play for the NBA title.

Because that's what veteran teams do.


Gregg Doyel is a columnist for CBSSports.com. He covered the ACC for the Charlotte Observer, the Marlins for the Miami Herald, and Brooksville (Fla.) Hernando for the Tampa Tribune. He was 4-0 (3 KO's!) as an amateur boxer, and volunteers for the ALS Association. Follow Gregg Doyel on Twitter.
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