Thunder Choke Away Game 4 Like Only Dirk, Mavs Once Could

| by Alex Groberman

A 15-point lead with less than five minutes remaining in regulation should have been enough of a cushion for the Oklahoma City Thunder. On their home floor, with their roaring fans going crazy -- and adorned in blue to match the Dallas Mavericks uniforms, apparently -- there was no other way for this story to be written.

There was no way that the second most feared team in the Western Conference -- when the postseason began -- could possibly give Game 4 away.

And yet somehow, in the most inexplicable fashion imaginable, that is precisely what they did.

On the other side of the court -- having just won 112-105 in overtime -- the gleaming Mavericks proudly strutted off knowing that they had silenced their critics, tormentors and whatever Skip Bayless is. They knew that they had passed the “chokers” label down to the next generation. By way of one marvelous fourth quarter run, Cuban's Angels essentially took all of the agony and gut-wrenching pain that comes with losing a game that was yours to win, and shoved it into one of Kevin Durant’s ridiculous backpacks.

Five seconds is a lifetime in basketball. Five minutes is an eternity, as the Mavericks proved and the Thunder came to find out the hard way. Rewind the tape from Monday night’s thriller to Durant’s reaction after he nailed the three-pointer that put his Oklahoma City squad up by 15 with just a little over five minutes remaining in the game.

Usually meek and timid, Durant was engulfed by emotion to the point where he slid his hands to his waist and did that nifty little Aaron Rodgers-championship-belt thing like he had just won his first ring. Now go back and look at the blank stare and despondency that the league’s scoring champ sat there with as he was forced to relive his failures in front of the media after the game. That’s the difference five minutes can make.

For all the hoopla that surrounded the way Nick Collison defended him in Game 3, Dirk Nowitzki didn’t look particularly frazzled as he scored 12 of his team’s final 17 points en route to forcing overtime. The truth is, of course, when the referees aren’t letting him shank the big German and rifle through his pockets without blowing the whistle, Collison is powerless against the best player left in the playoffs.

Breaking the 40-point barrier twice in this series and averaging 29 points on 51 percent shooting and 52 percent from the three-point line over the course of the playoffs earns Nowitzki that distinction, by the way.

Maybe when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade actually win the title this year things will be different, but for now, the aforementioned stats coupled with 93 percent from the free throw line and seven rebounds per game while absolutely ravishing the Blazers, Lakers and Thunder’s defenses is enough to give often-maligned forward the benefit of the doubt.

Durant may be the future, but Nowitzki is the present.

Meanwhile, for the Thunder, it was a rude awakening. James Harden’s stupid fouls, Russell Westbrook’s erratic play and Durant’s 0-for-6 showing after that last three-pointer was the end result of youth, inexperience and a lack of maturity. They have all of the talent and potential in the world, but for now, Oklahoma City is ill-equipped to deal with the mental strain of the NBA postseason. A time when no lead is safe and no issue is too small for the media to nitpick and turn into a month-long drama, the playoffs are not for the faint of heart. Few players and/or teams are able to just breeze through to the championship round without years of torturous losses along the way, and that’s precisely what the Thunder is learning right now.

Lucky for Durant and the gang, they’re still young and have time to develop and grow. This series is done, that much is a lock. After the whipping they got on their own home floor, there is no way that the Thunder beat the Mavericks three times in three games. But the future belongs to this team, and as Nowitzki and his guys can testify to, you’re only losers until you win again.

Game 5 is on Wednesday night.