The Thunder lost a heartbreaker in overtime to the Mavericks tonight, but you already knew that. The Thunder controlled the game from the opening tip until all but five minutes remained in the game. You knew that too. 15 points and five minutes separated the Thunder from sending the series back to Dallas 2-2, filled with renewed vigor, confidence, and a chance at taking Dallas to a level of competition they have not yet known in these playoffs. Five minutes to erase a season of 4th quarter collapses, to prove to themselves that they had grown just a little bit more, and continue this remarkable run.
The Thunder have an Achilles Heel. As we know from Greek mythology, it was prophesied that Achilles would die by an arrow through the heel. His mother, resisting this prophecy, dipped him in the River Styx to give him immortality. However, his mother did not submerge him, but held onto his heel as he was washed in the River. Therefore, everything about Achilles was protected except the very thing that was prophesied that would be the key to his death. Later in battle, Achilles was struck in his heel by an arrow shot by Paris, killing him.
The Thunder fought game to game with their most vulnerable facet known and exposed throughout the whole season. If they did not repair this trait, it would come back to haunt them. If the Thunder did not address their late game struggles, those struggles would be laid bare in the worst possible way at the worst possible time.
The Thunder never learned to protect their Heel.
You knew that too.
Better, more disinterested writers can break down each aspect of each quarter. They can aptly explain how the Thunder finally got off to their best start in the series, showing both tenacious defense and early shot-making. Those writers can explain how the Thunder averted a 2nd quarter collapse by absorbing the surging Dallas offense with a strong offensive performance of their own. And when the half was ended and it was time for their defense to rise again, those scribes can creatively explain how the Thunder defense gave up practically nothing in carrying them to the final quarter. They can write about how the Thunder completely dominated the Mavs on the boards, winning the overall battle 55-33 and an amazing 20-5 on the offensive glass and had shut down Dirk in the second half.
None of that matters.
All that matters, all that has really ever mattered this season, was whether the Thunder could figure out how to close games by running a competent offense when it mattered most.
With a 15 point lead and the game on the line, the Thunder stopped knowing what to do. I don't know if there's some switch that gets turned off at this late critical juncture in their games, but for far too many games we've seen the switch go off. Sometimes, the Thunder have a lead that is big enough to weather the storm. Other times, like in Game Three in Memphis or tonight, the lead is not quite big enough. The Thunder went from knowing exactly what to do for three and a half quarters, where guys were hawking the ball, playing stingy defense, swinging the ball to the open man, and finishing plays, to not knowing what to do at all. The problem was not Russell Westbrook, or Kendrick Perkins, or Kevin Durant, and all of the arrows that have been slung their way this post-season. The problem was that the team lacked a collective knowledge on how to get from point C to the finish line. So they did what they've always done in late games, which was very little at all.
From the time that Kevin Durant hit his last 3-pointer with 5:05 to play and the Thunder surging with a 15 point lead, OKC subsequently scored two points the rest of the way in regulation. They missed nine shots, two free throws, and committed two turnovers. Combined with the four points the Thunder managed in overtime, they played those 10 most important minutes of their game, series, and season and had six points to show for it. At the end of the day, the Thunder, by reason of youth, inexperience, anxiety, lack of coaching, or some combination of all of those and more, did not know what to do. And when a team that doesn't have a common unifying purpose in their play runs into a team that knows exactly what they're doing, a 28-6 point close-out by the opposition is the result. I bow my head in reverence to the Mavs, because Dallas did what basketball fans yearn for teams to do, and they did it when the stakes were high.
It is funny, but in a way it comforts me some that Dallas knew how to do this tonight while the Thunder did not in Game Three. If you recall, the Thunder were right there in the end, just like Dallas was tonight. But unlike the Mavs, they did not know how to close the lead and force overtime. To be sure, some of the comeback always has to do with guys who make shots. And Dirk Nowitzki went supernova again, making almost everything he threw at the rim in those five minutes. That is what great players do, what the best clutch players do, and that is who Dirk is. This reality, as anxiety-ridden as it is, comforts me because it tells me that there is still an order to how things work in the NBA. It tells me that experience, teamwork, and maturity still count for something. I'm not saying that the Thunder don't have any of it, because certainly this post-season has been giving them lessons left and right. I'm just saying that the Mavs have much, much more of it. They have guys on their team that have made it to the precipice of a championship and not quite made it, and the stumble from that precipice still labors inside of them, longing to be avenged. The stumble taught them to work harder, learn more, trust more, and fight longer, and it is good that this additional set of assets still carries weight and can turn a series. It also means that the Thunder can acquire it too some day and then they too can be ready to climb a little bit higher.
I'm not writing Game Five off at all. What the Thunder have shown us in these past two games is that they possess ample talent and tenacity to win games against Dallas. They can still win a game.
However, what they do not have is the one thing that they cannot gain or discover at this juncture. This one thing will likely mean their season is about to close, because even if the Thunder win Game Five, it will be monumentally difficult to win two more after that with no margin for error left. Rest assured, if the Thunder somehow are to continue and prolong the series, they will again face another final five minutes, and they still do not yet know how to win in those final five minutes.
But you already knew that.
Thunder Wonder: Serge Ibaka, 18 points, 10 rebounds, 5 blocks
Thunder Down Under: Nick Collison, 12 points, 7 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal
Thunder Blunder: Scott Brooks
Thunder Plunderer: Dirk Nowitzki, 40 points, including 12 in the 4th quarter
Next Game: Game 5 vs the Dallas Mavericks, Wednesday, May 25th, 8 PM Central Standard Time.