The Dallas Mavericks were never going to win their series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They are just an outclassed team. For the Thunder, this series was not about winning and isn’t now. It’s about winning in a manner which indicates they can play on a stage with the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. And that’s why their 119-108 win over the Mavs to take a 3-1 series lead is the most telling.
This game was more even impressive for the Thunder than their two previous wins of 38 points in Game 1 and 29 in Game 3.
They have no problem blowing teams out of the water. Where they struggle is in close contests. The Thunder owned a net rating of 0.0 in the fourth quarter this year, but in the clutch, they were an abysmal -8.3, which was the last worst of anyone in the NBA.
That was, in large part, due to an over-reliance on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And the challenge has been when you’re that predictable, teams can stop you.
Through the first three games of the series, all those inclinations continued.
But in Game 4, they bucked those trends. The Mavericks were a persistent team all night, vying get back into the contest repeatedly. Again and again, they would close the deficit to single digits, but each time the Thunder would respond. Often, by feeding Enes Kanter at the rim.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe tweeted:
Kanter with some pretty ridiculous finishes around the rim tonight. Spread PNR has killed Dallas all game, OKC has used more 2nd half
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) April 24, 2016
On the night, Kanter was 12-of-13 for 28 points to be the Thunder’s leading scorer.
In the second quarter, Anthony Morrow caught a ball that was going out of bounds and played keep away from Mavericks rookie, Salah Mejri. There was a bit of a ruckus that followed with J.J. Barea ready to take on the entire Thunder bench.
— Randy Renner (@RandyRenner) April 24, 2016
While this was mostly on Morrow and was a pretty “jerk” move on his part, the Thunder getting their backs up was a good sign.
All of that (and not including what seemed to be an unintentional and pointless flagrant 2 on Durant’s part in the last minute of the game) indicated a fight from the Thunder.
This was not a blowout.
This was not a blown lead.
This was just a good basketball team protecting a lead down the stretch. The Thunder won the fourth frame by one point, 30-29. Dallas never got closer than eight; they never made it a contest. And that might have been the best possible results for the Thunder.
This was very different from Game 2, where the Thunder lost a double-digit lead when the Mavs mounted the pressure.
Sure, it was just the Mavericks, but baby steps. They showed backbone. They squared up and traded punches. Pick your mano-e-mano whatever metaphor. The important thing is they didn’t break down, and they didn’t nearly break down.
It was close enough that an opportune run from the Mavs would have made it a five- or six-point game and that would have put the Thunder on their heels. Even if they didn’t blow it, they could have “nearly” blown it.
But winning this way, by 11 points with the Mavs unable to get the game close enough to have a chance, but never being quite out of it either, was ideal. In essence, the Thunder were able to learn to kill.
The opponent doesn’t matter, the psychology does. The confidence that comes from a win like this can give the Thunder the confidence they need to protect leads in future games against the Warriors or Spurs. And that’s what makes this such a crucial quarter for the Spurs.