HANG TIME PLAYOFF HEADQUARTERS — A 13-point deficit in a hostile environment, with a close-out opportunity fading away with every empty possession, would have worried most teams heading into the fourth quarter.
But not the Oklahoma City Thunder. And certainly not James Harden, the Thunder’s mercurial sixth man who came to the rescue and delivered the Thunder’s 103-97 series-clinching Game 4 win over the Dallas Mavericks Saturday night at American Airlines Center with a staggering 29-point performance that included virtuoso work in the crucial minutes of the fourth quarter.
The Thunder not only swept the defending champs out of the playoffs for the second straight year (the Mavericks got the Lakers in the Western Conference semis a year ago), they also became the first team in this postseason to punch their ticket to the second round, where they await the winner of the Lakers-Nuggets series.
Perhaps even more important in their own locker room, however, is that they vanquished the team that ended their dream run in the conference finals last year by schooling the young upstarts in the art of closing out playoff games.
“We learned a lot [from that series],” said Thunder All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, whose lockdown defense on Mavericks sixth man Jason Terry helped turn the series in his team’s favor. “We learned that we had to come back this season with a lot more toughness.”
And they did!
It’s far too early to crown the Thunder as anything but the first team to move on to the next round. But they showed resilience, some toughness and some maturity that many people wondered if they possessed after seeing the Mavericks take them apart in that five-game series last year.
“They’re a great young team,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “They have a certain look in their eye right now, not only that they belong but that this could be their time. I’m sure the addition of [Derek] Fisher has something to do with that. But they came at us like a buzzsaw in the fourth quarter … they’re going to be tough to beat.”
How tough remains to be seen. There are obviously better and more challenging teams for the Thunder to deal with than the 7th seeded Mavericks, who not only lost the likes of KIA Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson in free agency, but also had to deal with the season-long drama that came with the trade for Lamar Odom that blew up in the face of the franchise.
Their deficiencies came back to haunt them in this series, complete with the Thunder eager and able to exploit each and every one of them when an opportunity presented itself.
Harden’s ability to do whatever he wanted to do against the Mavericks’ defense late, showed that their collective age and lack of athleticism was a signal that the aged crew was on the way out at the hands of a crew that appears primed for bigger and better things.
As a group, the Thunder work like a team that has only one goal in mind. And that goal is a Larry O’Brien trophy. How else to explain stars the caliber of Westbrook and three-time scoring champ Kevin Durant deferring to the probable Sixth Man of the Year at crunch time the way they did?
“His pick and roll game is unreal,” Durant said of Harden, who nearly outscored the Mavericks (16-15) on his own. “It’s fun to watch and fun to be a part of.”
Harden scored, he facilitated, he defended and he dragged the Thunder back from that double-digit deficit and
Harden said last year’s run that was ended by the Mavericks is what inspired him and his teammate to come back and play the way they have all season, and particularly in this series.
“It showed us how good we are,” Harden said, “what we’re capable of and what we can do now.”
Those narrow escapes in Games 1 and 2 in Oklahoma City reminded him that you can’t afford to mess around against a quality opponent and expect positive results.
“They’re winners over there,” Harden said. “You can’t keep giving them opportunities to win games.”
The Thunder proved to the basketball world that they are quick learners. They learned their lessons from last year and even from last week.
They also showed the rest of the West and the league just how good they are and how unbelievably they will be for anyone to deal with now that they have cleared the first hurdle of this postseason.