OKLAHOMA CITY —
Champions don’t go down easy.
Oklahoma City learned this lesson Saturday in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs. Facing defending champion Dallas, the Thunder found themselves on the ropes late to a team everyone thought was dead.
However, the Thunder still had Kevin Durant. And as he did against the Mavericks earlier in the regular season, the MVP candidate found a way to will his team to 99-98 victory at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“It was a good win for us,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “We stuck together. That is what this team always does. It didn’t surprise me that we got down a few times. Even with three minutes to go, we got down seven and continued to fight back.”
With Dallas trailing by a point, Dirk Nowitzki was fouled by James Harden with nine seconds left in the game. He drilled both free throws to give his team a 98-97 lead.
Oklahoma City called a timeout, and everyone knew who was getting the ball. Durant had hit a game-winning 3-pointer in December to beat Dallas. He took a different route this time.
With Shawn Marion guarding him, Durant drove to the middle of the lane and put up a soft jumper. It bounced around the rim before falling in. The crowd erupted as the Thunder grabbed a 1-0 series lead.
“I didn’t want to settle for a three,” Durant said. “So I just tried to take it closer and shoot a shot. Got enough arc on it and it was able to fall in.”
Durant had a sub-par shooting night going 10 for 27, but finished with 25 points, six rebounds and four blocks. Russell Westbrook added 28 points and Serge Ibaka came up with 22 points and five blocks.
Nowitzki led the Mavs with 25. Jason Terry was hot early and scored 20.
“We are going to keep coming at these guys,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “Trust me. We are going to keep coming at them. We have a tough-minded team. We have a locker room full of champions.”
If there was any doubt that Dallas still had a champions’ DNA still in them, those were eliminated in the first quarter. After Oklahoma City came out riding the emotion of its home crowd, the Mavs didn’t get rattled. They let the Thunder calm down and wound up holding a 26-22 lead heading into the second quarter.
The Thunder had no answer for Terry in first half. He came off the bench firing from all angles and lighting up every defender who dared guard him. James Harden, Daequan Cook and Derek Fisher all took turns and all were scored upon.
Oklahoma City kept pace behind Westbrook, Harden and Durant. Each reached double figures in the first half. But it was a last second 3-pointer from Ibaka that closed the deficit to 51-48 at halftime. It was his third trey of the season.
With Durant still having problems with Jason Kidd guarding him in the post, the offense ran through Westbrook and Ibaka in the third. They got the Thunder back to a brief lead at 66-64. But the Mavs responded and led by four at the end of three quarters.
Westbrook kicked his game into another gear in the fourth quarter on both ends of the court. On defense, he took the challenge of guarding Terry and forced other players to make shots. Terry didn’t score a point in the final quarter.
Offensively Westbrook attacked the Dallas defenders with his mid-range jump shot and hard drives to the basket.
However, Dallas didn’t go away. Either Nowitzki made a big shot or the Thunder bailed them out with terrible fouls.
But the Thunder turned up their defense late and took the Mavericks out of the game.
“It’s just one game,’ Brooks said. “That is what playoff basketball is. Take the game, win or lose, and move on to the next one.”