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.”