OKLAHOMA CITY – Dirk Nowitzki(notes) had already ripped into Jason Terry(notes) a few moments earlier, and he wasn't ready to let up. The Oklahoma City Thunder were running them down, chewing up the Dallas Mavericks' lead late, and Nowitzki had seen enough. He barked at Terry as they headed to the bench during the ensuing timeout, swatted Terry on the rear and blasted him some more.
The next lesson played out over the following six minutes. As the Mavericks fought off the Thunder, the ball almost always found its way into the hands of their best player. Nowitzki had battled through the toughest night of these playoffs for him, and yet he stood as tall as ever in those final tense moments. Fading from 7 feet. Burying a 15-foot jump shot. Coolly stopping to plunge one last dagger into the Thunder to give the Mavs a 2-1 lead in these Western Conference finals.
"I've got to keep attacking for this team like I have the last, whatever, 13 years," Nowitzki said after the Mavs' 93-87 Game 3 victory was complete. "This team needs me to score and keep being aggressive, and my teammates obviously support me and find me in good positions where I can make plays.
"Yeah … I've got to keep coming."
Durant and the Thunder would be wise to take notes. They'll tell you they didn't lose the game in the fourth quarter, and they're right. The Mavs swung first and often, flooring the Thunder with their physicality and aggressiveness until they'd built a 23-point lead. By the time the Thunder punched back, it was nearly too late.
And yet with three minutes left, OKC had fought within six. Like Nowitzki, Durant had struggled for much of the evening. The Mavericks trapped and blitzed him, squeezing him from his comfort spots. He missed 11 of his first 13 shots before gaining some traction late in the third quarter. With the Thunder closing hard, he looked poised to help make the final push.
He watched Westbrook dribble into a turnover.
Four consecutive empty possessions. It wasn't just that Durant didn't shoot. He didn't even touch the ball. The Thunder's greatest player, the NBA's two-time leading scorer – the same guy who'd hung 64 points on the Mavericks in the first two games of this series – didn't touch the ball in the two most critical minutes of the game. Instead, he drifted near the 3-point line … and watched.
"I think that Russ had it going and Daequan came in the game, so we were looking for him and James, and everybody was being aggressive," Durant said. "It wasn't just about one guy getting the ball."
No, it was about the one guy who didn't get the ball. This is where Durant's youth and humbleness work against him. Everyone loves him because he's sweet and smooth. In many respects, he's the anti-LeBron. He doesn't clamor for the attention. He doesn't make everything about himself.
But sometimes it does need to be about him, and this was one of those moments. It's OK for Durant to demand what he wants, to post his defender, throw up his arm and call for the ball. It's OK to be a jerk. He doesn't need all of Kobe Bryant's(notes) piggish traits, but he would benefit from having Kobe's sense of time and place to understand when he should be selfish. Sometimes, it seems like he doesn't understand how much of a game-changing talent he's already become.
"Durant," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, "is a guy you game plan for in your sleep."
Durant will eventually realize the same. All the great ones do. Nowitzki wasn't always vocal and he wasn't always this aggressive. Over the years, he's learned how to carry a team and impose his will on a game.
Saturday was only the latest example. In some ways, Nowitzki's performance was even more impressive than the 48 points he scored in Game 1. The Mavs were rolling so well early that they didn't need to lean on him, and he struggled to settle into a rhythm until late. The whistle also didn't go his way – the Thunder shot 18 more free throws than the Mavs – and yet he continued to attack. At one stretch in the final quarter, the Mavs went to Nowitzki on 10 of 11 possessions.
"He's our guy," Carlisle said. "He's going to touch the ball as frequently as we can get it to him. If he misses a few shots, you know, he's not going to get deterred, he's not going to get discouraged. He's got the kind of will he's going to keep going at it."
The Thunder haven't been quite as generous with Durant. Every NBA scout says the same thing about them: They are poor at running their offense in the half court. That's typical for a young team. When the Thunder do try to run a set, they're often not patient enough to run it all the way through. As teams see better defenses in the playoffs, half-court execution becomes all the more essential.
Collison didn't think that's why the Thunder lost Game 3. OKC didn't respond to the Mavs' aggression. "I don't know if everybody else knew what kind of fight it was going to be tonight, but I knew," Kendrick Perkins(notes) said. "You have a veteran team over there with guys who really have their eyes on the prize."
The Thunder also missed 16 consecutive 3-pointers, and they're likely too good to do that again. But Perkins was right when he said something else:
"Tonight we didn't trust each other."
Westbrook has shouldered most of the criticism for this. On the Thunder, Durant and Westbrook should be 1 and 1A – yet their All-Star point guard isn't always willing to wear the scarlet letter. For the Thunder, it's forever a balancing act. Westbrook is best when he's aggressive, but that aggressiveness sometimes comes at the expense of Durant and other teammates. On Saturday, he helped the Thunder fight back into the game, and yet that 3-pointer he hoisted was a quick, costly miss.
Durant deserves blame, too. He wasn't nearly as passive as he was in that Game 6 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies a week earlier, but he didn't play the smartest game. He took eight 3-pointers, missed them all, and afterward admitted he could have done more to free himself, to make himself available. It's become a recurring theme in these playoffs: In the Thunder's triple-OT Game 4 win over the Grizzlies, Durant went more than nine minutes of crunch time without taking a shot. During one break, the TV cameras showed him frustrated and complaining to an assistant coach.
Eventually, the great ones understand how to get the ball themselves. Any teammate who froze out Michael Jordan that long would've been floored the next day in practice. Kobe need only glare to wither his teammates.
Maybe Durant doesn't have the same personality. More likely: He's just 22, and has more than enough time to develop that edge. He's already proven to be both a quick study and resilient. His 39 points in Game 7 against the Grizzlies showed that much. Win or lose, he will emerge from this series a better, more dangerous player.
Saturday provided some more lessons. As the Mavs struggled to fight off the Thunder, they threw the ball to Dirk. They didn't care that he hadn't shot well. They threw it to him again and again.
Durant watched, and maybe next time he remembers. He's earned the right to carry these Thunder, to determine whether they win or lose. He's earned the right to demand the ball.
And if it doesn't work?
Sometimes, it's OK to yell, too.