"We were increasing the lead."
That's it, from Thunder coach Scott Brooks. Nothing more. This is why Oklahoma City guard Eric Maynor played the whole fourth quarter, and if you want to call me naïve and tell me I should be more cynical in how I approach the way I cover this game, well … actually I don't have three giant boxes of conspiracy proof and/or theories to show you, because I sold them to Richard Belzer.
(For gold, of course. The only thing we can count on when this whole society goes to pot. You watch.)
Let the TV pundits and national columnists (sneering descriptions that we're now starting to toss out with the same invective those types used to save for "bloggers and dot com'ers" some five years ago, five months ago, five days ago) pump this story up to fulfill their insecure need to turn basketball into mere fodder for that next day's cable, print, or radio lineup. The real story here, as All-Star Oklahoma Thunder guard Russell Westbrook sat for the entire fourth quarter, is that for small one-possession stretches Dallas' defense was no good when it needed to be, and its offense was lacking when it needed to be. And that Oklahoma City won, and took the homecourt advantage in the victory.
Also, that this was a superbly well-played game by both sides that was decided by only six points, and two possessions. Oklahoma City made more tough shots. They had the lead when the clock was about to run out, so Dallas had to start fouling intentionally. Then they had the lead, earned with tough and smart play, when the clock went out. There's your story, well-dressed man.
Beyond that dismissive take, what a game! Dallas roared out to the early lead, watching as Jason Kidd nailed a pair of treys and found Tyson Chandler again and again for transition throw-downs as OKC didn't talk defensively.
Then came that dunk. And while I like to go pragmatic with these sorts of things, tell me that didn't change things. Tell me that those two points didn't count for … well, OK. They counted for two points. But they helped, in some regard. And the momentum swing (even as Dallas hit a technical foul free throw on the other end, and Durant missed his and-one freebie) was palpable.
Even with some defensive hiccups, the Thunder bench methodically took it to the Mavs in the second quarter, running what was a five-point deficit at the end of the first (and an 11-point deficit earlier on as Kidd and Chandler were having their way) into a two-point lead by halftime. The Mavs just weren't closing out the way the encouraged Thunder offense demanded, and OKC helped stem that tide with Russell Westbrook's 18 points (nice jumpers), Durant's 24, and the way it made sure that the Maverick helpers (Shawn Marion and Jason Terry combined to shoot 7-22) stay in check.
And Dallas, to its discredit, never seemed to find a way to find Nowitzki the ball.
"Riding" someone doesn't mean taking in their somewhere-around-30 points (Dirk had 29) or going to them incessantly in the stretch (Dirk had 16 fourth quarter points). It means riding them throughout. You ride them in the first half, as they pick up fouls on the other team and help find open jumpers for their teammates (done and done, as Dirk had four assists by the half), you ride them in the third quarter so as to help pull away in a close game (nope, and noper), and you let them finish things in the fourth.
And that third quarter, one that saw Dallas fail to put a stamp on things despite OKC's 18 third quarter points, was the missed chance. The Thunder played tough defense in the third, you saw it, but that only means you switch gears. You still ride the damn thing.
In the fourth, OKC's spacing was too good. In a back-and-forth game, it came down to being able to point to each of Dallas' screwups. Tyson Chandler needlessly treating Nick Collison like he was Joel Anthony on offense. Jason Terry missing shots. Dirk's one missed free throw, two missed jumpers (both on line), and the attempted jump hook off of a loose ball. Jason Kidd throwing it away.
On defense, though? The Thunder ran perfectly off those few misses. James Harden (23 points, seven boards, four assists) made some brilliant shots. And in the end, there just weren't enough possessions in the fourth, even as the team fed it to Dirk just about every time down court, to make up for those few wasted possessions earlier in the game for Dallas.
And that's what basketball often comes down to. It doesn't end because one team has defeated another. It ends because the clock ran out. And while Oklahoma City deserves unending credit for thinking on its feet, refusing to back down after taking in that early deficit, and bringing the poise and focus on the road, this was just a game that ended. I'd say the same had Marion and Terry hit a few more shots earlier in the game, and Dallas won by six.
The only issue is what you choose to pine over. You can obsess over what the TV guys can't get past, or you can look forward to the fact that you probably have five games left between two championship-worthy teams that are just unendingly fun to watch. Oklahoma City is owed its blowout win, and that'll happen at some point, but beyond that (assuming there's no absence of character, destructive shooting slump, or injury) we're getting four great ones.
On Thursday night, we got another great one. Don't pity Russell Westbrook, because he had the best seat in the house.