With just under five minutes left in regulation, the ocean of royal blue-clad Oklahoma City Thunder fans could feel victory in their grasp. After a Kevin Durant 3-pointer that hit nothing but nylon, the crowd exploded and the Thunder went up by fifteen points.
Dallas’s first 44 minutes of Game 4 were as mediocre as any they've endured during the playoffs. But as they’ve repeatedly shown this season, this is a different Mavericks team from years past, and they once again countered with a steely veteran steadiness that produced one of the most jaw-dropping comebacks in NBA history, resulting in a 112-105 overtime victory over the Thunder.
Dallas now returns home with a 3-1 series lead after winning five consecutive games on the road, as well as nine of their last ten playoff appearances, and can close out Oklahoma City with a win on Wednesday night.
In those last few minutes, there was one key factor that no Thunder player or fan could anticipate: the otherworldly inspired play of Dallas’s Dirk Nowitzki. Hitting for 40 points, Nowitzki entered rarified air in NBA lore with a shooting performance that television commentator Magic Johnson said reminded him of Michael Jordan in his prime; high praise, and by no means an exaggeration.
Nowitzki’s acrobatic fallaway shots from the top of the key and inside hit repeatedly with stunning precision. And when paired with the opportunistic defense of Jason Terry, Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd, who combined for twelve steals, Nowitzki made the most of his scoring opportunities, hitting both from the field and from the foul line, as Oklahoma City’s lead continued to evaporate. As for the Thunder, they could only muster six points in the last five minutes of regulation.
All told, this game was an offensive cornucopia, with eight players scoring in double figures. But turnovers were a major problem for Oklahoma City, who had 25 to Dallas’s 13. This effectively neutralized the Thunder’s superiority on the boards, where they had 55 rebounds to Dallas’s 28.
However, with the fouling out of reserve guard James Harden with four and a half minutes remaining, the Thunder seemed incapable of mounting any sustained offense. And if that weren’t enough, Russell Westbrook, whose foul shooting is stellar on a Thunder team that led the NBA this season in foul shooting percentage, clanked two off the back iron at a critical moment during the waning minutes that was not only symbolic of Oklahoma City’s offensive troubles, but also crucial to keeping Dallas’s momentum going.
And speaking of the Thunder’s offensive woes, they once again had very poor three-point shooting – making only two of 13 attempts. And in the last five minutes of regulation, they only hit one of nine from the field, with two turnovers.
The Mavericks countered with 4-for-5 from the floor and six of eight at the charity stripe in the same time span. But it wasn’t all bad news, offensively speaking, for Oklahoma City: Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka both had double-doubles, with Durant grabbing 15 boards to complement his 29 points, and Ibaka adding a series high 18 points. And overall, the Thunder had five players who scored in double-figures.
This loss may have been very discouraging for Oklahoma City, but it should not have been altogether unexpected – particularly for a young team with limited playoff experience. It was obvious that as their lead vanished in the last half of the fourth quarter, their inexperience was revealing itself – causing the Thunder to tighten up and hurry play, which in turn led both to turnovers and fouls.
It was also evident that their earlier energy was slowly but inexorably passing to the Mavericks, who seemed to gain strength with each possession and remaining tick of the game clock. Nowitzki, for his part, seemed oblivious to the limited remaining time, and effectively used it to show why he is arguably the league’s premier clutch performer.