OKLAHOMA CITY – Kevin Durant(notes) sat slumped in the chair in front of his locker. He was staring at his phone, scrolling through the messages, and his eyes looked blank. There was nothing anyone could say or text to make him feel better. This was the kind of hurt that takes months to get over.
Durant had come within minutes of turning these Western Conference finals into anyone's series, and then … nothing. His Oklahoma City Thunder suffered an epic collapse, spitting up a 15-point lead in five minutes before falling to the Dallas Mavericks 112-105 in overtime. It was the kind of loss that pierces the thickest of hearts, an improbable meltdown that promises to fill weeks of air time for the local hang-up-and-listen psychiatrists.
It was the kind of loss that maybe someday Durant looks back on and says he needed.
The Thunder don't want to hear that now. They were moments from evening the series at 2-2, and now they're headed to Dallas within one loss of elimination, trying to recover for a Game 5 that very well could be their wake. When it mattered most, they looked young and clueless, folding under the pressure, taking quick shots, throwing the ball to the Mavericks. It was as inept a stretch of crunch-time basketball as anyone can remember this deep into the playoffs.
"If this loss did not hurt," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, "there's no such thing as a loss that can hurt you."
That's the way it goes in the NBA. Nothing comes easy in this league, and for proof all Durant and the Thunder needed to do was look across the court. Has any star been knocked down more times in the past decade than Dirk Nowitzki(notes)?
It's hard to imagine now. Nowitzki has played this postseason as a mix of Kobe Bryant(notes) and Hakeem Olajuwon, as ruthless and unstoppable a 7-foot force as the league has seen in years. He's scored 48, 29, 18 and 40 points in this series, and his final five minutes of the fourth quarter of Game 4 were among the greatest of his career. By the end, Thunder forward Nick Collison(notes) looked like David Robinson futilely trying to stay in front of Olajuwon in the 1995 West finals. On one stunning possession, Nowitzki swung the ball right to left to get Collison sailing past him, twisted backward, jumped off his right foot and lofted a shot that found the bottom of the net.
Of the 17 points the Mavericks scored in those five minutes to send the game into overtime, Nowitzki had 12.
Nowitzki has never won in the playoffs the way Bird did. For years, he's been the league's lovable loser. His Mavericks collapsed in the 2006 NBA Finals and lost in the first round three of the next four years. This season looked like more of the same. When the Portland Trail Blazers rallied from 23 points down in the second half to tie their first-round series at two games apiece, the Mavs flew home once again having to answer questions about their resiliency.
"I've obviously had my fair share of leads and lost them," Nowitzki said. "It's all part of the game. You know, it happens. It happens to the best teams in the league."
Nowitzki has emerged from all those losses a tougher, better player. Durant will eventually realize this. All the great ones take their lumps. Michael Jordan pounded his head against the Detroit Pistons. On Tim Duncan's(notes) way to four titles, he was embarrassingly swept by the Los Angeles Lakers, lost another series to the Lakers with Derek Fisher's(notes) .4 miracle and fell to the Mavs and Nowitzki in an epic Game 7. Even Bryant suffered two lean, embarrassing seasons when the Lakers rebuilt around him.
The Mavericks are a motley collection of veterans united by their past playoff misery, from their coach on down. Rick Carlisle took the Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals only to fall short each time. Jason Kidd(notes) lost consecutive NBA Finals with the New Jersey Nets and has forever struggled to get back.
"It's a bunch of experienced guys that ultimately have one goal that came together and fought through some stuff," Nowitzki said.
These are the kinds of lessons that can't be taught, only experienced. Don't skip steps has been the Thunder mantra, and yet they arrived here earlier than anyone expected. Watching them come unhinged, it's a wonder they made it this far. Durant buried that 3-pointer to stake the Thunder to a 15-point lead with five minutes left, then pantomimed as if he were fastening a championship belt around his waist like Aaron Rodgers at the Super Bowl.
It was a foolish act, and the Thunder continued to play down to their age. They've given up leads throughout these playoffs because they cannot execute their offense in the half court – a necessity in the postseason – and this was the harshest evidence yet. Once again, they were disorganized and impatient. Losing their second-best playmaker, James Harden(notes), to too many fouls didn't help, but the Thunder's problems ran deeper.
The Thunder don't know how to get the ball to Durant, and he doesn't make the best decisions when he does get it. From the time the Thunder took their 15-point lead to the end of overtime, Durant missed all six of his shots and lost the ball twice. He still had a chance to win the game on the final possession of regulation, but rushed a 30-footer that was blocked by Shawn Marion(notes).
"I didn't know what else to do," he said.
The Mavericks delivered a lesson in poise and selflessness, and Durant shouldn't have been the only one paying attention. Brooks and Russell Westbrook(notes) should also grow from this series. When a team can't manufacture a productive possession for that long, blame will go to both the coach and point guard.
The playoffs expose a team's strengths and flaws, and it's clear these Thunder aren't a finished product. Westbrook is a 22-year-old All-NBA talent, but is he the right fit for Durant – or merely an enabler of Durant's worst habits? Don't the Thunder still lack another veteran who can help settle them?
Those questions are best answered in the calm of the summer. Thunder general manager Sam Presti built this roster deliberately and methodically. He knew these twentysomethings would show their immaturity and he knows they should emerge from this better for the experience.
From All-Star to All-NBA, from a gold medal in the world championships to a berth in the Western Conference finals, Durant has been on a meteoric rise. But not even he can skip every step. As the game slipped away, Durant, like his team, collapsed. He squatted down and folded his body over, dropping his head.
"I feel like I let the city down," he would later say.
Yes, this hurt. Whether next month, next season or five seasons from now, Durant will learn what Dirk and all the other greats have learned. The pain makes the journey up that much more fulfilling.
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