Thursday, May 3, 2012 Updated: May 5, 6:33 PM ET
Thunder look ready to finish champs
By Marc Stein ESPN.com
DALLAS -- It is not completely accurate to say that the Dallas Maverickswanted this series with the Oklahoma City Thunder. The more precise characterization: Dallas wanted to see the Thunder more than it wanted to deal with the monstrously big Los Angeles Lakers in Round 1.
Or so the Mavs thought.
The time for reassessments would appear to be nigh after the presumed lesser or two evils dished out a seriously nasty spanking Thursday night, with Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and their dialed-in supporting cast ruthlessly pushing the reigning champions to the brink of a sweep that could well give the Mavs more time to huddle on this summer's long-planned overhaul than they ever expected.
Fans arrived for this Game 3 at American Airlines Center with royal blue "All In" T-shirts draped over every seat. After the Thunder amassed a lead on the road that reached as high as 26 and rolled to a 95-79 rout, taking a 3-0 series lead that 83 previous NBA teams have tried and failed to overturn in playoff history, there was a new and unavoidable mantra in town even if none of the combatants were willing to publicly say it.
"They kicked our ass in every facet of the game," Mavs guard Jason Terry.
It's no accident, either. The Thunder won the first two games at home by a combined four points against the league's longtime masters of the close game despite Durant shooting 15-for-44 from the field, suggesting that Dallas might be able to change the psychology of the series and rattle the Thunder with a convincing Game 3 response ... or that OKC had another gear to go to if Durant got hot.
Didn't take long to get our answer. With a scalding Durant ringing up 15 of his 31 points in the opening quarter, Dallas had to play from behind from the jump ... at a time when it's never lacked the offensive firepower to play catch-up in a worse way. A pivotal 11-point third quarter from Westbrook -- who makes the Thunder look rather beastly themselves when he's consistently hitting that midrange jumper -- turned it into a runaway.
"You knew he was going to have a good shooting game sooner or later," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of Durant.
Said Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki: "Westbrook has been the key. I think sometimes over the last year or whatever he'll get rattled or turn the ball over or something, [make] a bad decision, but he's been stellar. He's been shooting the ball extremely well. He's been making the right plays."
And as for the Mavs' psyche after two heartbreakers and a home-floor humiliation?
"As expected," Nowitzki said, "it's not great."
As much as the Mavs miss Tyson Chandler's commanding presence as a defensive anchor, they quietly miss his ability to catch and finish and make free throws almost as much, which made Chandler far harder for defenders to leave than any of the centers who've tried to take his place. The Mavs also hoped/prayed that Lamar Odom would replace J.J. Barea as their off-the-bench offensive wild card to relieve Nowitzki and Jason Terry from doing all of the important scoring, but that gamble obviously couldn't have backfired worse.
To get anything out of this awkward transitional season before free agency in July, Terry has to play at a consistently high level and Nowitzki has to be at peak efficiency when Durant is shooting 11-for-15, Westbrook is consistently draining those 15- to 18-footers and Daequan Cook and Derek Fisher are combining to toss in five bonus 3-pointers to complement all the grunt work from Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison.
But the Mavericks' limited offensive options beyond their venerable two-man game, with Delonte West and Vince Carter also so up and down, allow the Thunder to hone in on Nowitzki and Terry. And they've never done it better than they did here, holding Nowitzki to 17 points on 6-for-15 shooting and limiting Terry to a quiet 11.
"Just a great, total defensive effort tonight," OKC swingman James Harden said. "Frustrated them."
You know it's a different day and age when Nowitzki misses three free throws in eight attempts. In last spring's five games against OKC in the Western Conference finals, Dirk shot 59-for-61 from the line.
But beyond reminding his audience that the franchise willingly "took a step back" in hopes that Mark Cuban will be able to land Deron Williams in free agency in July, Nowitzki wasn't too interested in an extended discussion about the championship Mavs.
"That's over with," he said.
Only in the offseason will we learn how costly the Chandler dice roll was, when we get to see what Cuban does with cap space for the first time in his NBA life . For now, though, Dallas has been reduced to a prideful search for one solitary win that can force the series back to Oklahoma City and at least delay what is sure to be a long, nervous wait -- given the consequences if Dallas doesn't make a superstar score -- for the right to duel the Brooklyn Nets for D-Will's signature.
The Thunder, meanwhile, are just one win away from becoming the first team to ever sweep one of Dirk's teams, which would be quite the opening statement after it looked like their road just to get to the NBA Finals -- with the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs looming as likely foes in Rounds 2 and 3 -- was as daunting as it gets.
"If we play like that," Harden said, "it's hard to beat us."