What is your initial reaction to tonight's result?
My first reaction is one of acknowledgement to the Dallas Mavericks team and organization. When this season passes away in whatever shape and form that is to come, most people will have forgotten about this one series that pitted the upstart young Thunder against the defending champion Mavericks. People will look at ESPN or Wikipedia, see the 4-0 sweep, and regard it as a series of non-competition when the word 'veteran' became synonymous with the word 'old.' They won't remember the closeness of three out of four, how the Mavs pushed the Thunder hard in very competitive games, or how the Thunder had to grow on the spot to win in the end.
However, it is good to remember what the Mavericks, old and short-handed, represented even in inglorious defeat. They fought a fight they could not win, and that is a most noble thing.
What was, overall, the main reason the Thunder won?
The Thunder finally had a Plan C.
A year ago, the Thunder relied on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to carry the load for a majority of games. Most of the time that solution worked and continues to work. Seldom can a team match up against two elite offensive players. However, when OKC ran into Dallas a year ago, Shawn Marion proved to be up to the task to stop Durant, and Westbrook was not quite ready to exploit all of the opportunities that were made ready.
This time around, Marion bottled up Durant and the Dallas guards started trapping Westbrook out past the 3-point line so that he could not get to the lane. Instead of OKC trying to force either of those options to work, Plan C emerged in the form of James Harden. Harden stepped onto the court, seized the lime light, and rocketed the Thunder past the Mavericks in the 4th quarter.
Many have made the case that Harden is an All-Star caliber player and upcoming awards and recognition may confirm it. However there is nothing so sweet as watching your player, who you believe to be worthy, step up and capture the moment as his own. Down 13 points and with little hope, OKC opted to put the ball in the hands of Harden and see what happened. Harden responded by netting nine of the 12 consecutive points the Thunder scored to narrow the lead down to a single point. Any time Harden had either Jason Kidd or Delonte West guarding him, Harden took the ball straight to the rim and finished with such consistency and determination that the Mavericks were the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.
Harden had single-handedly shredded the Dallas defense and it gave his teammates renewed vigor. Russell Westbrook ratcheted up his defense, getting critical steals. Kevin Durant, struggling for most of the night, hit two huge 3-point shots and finished the quarter with nine points of his own. When Serge Ibaka threw down a slam off of a fast break, the Thunder had a lead that they would never relinquish again.
What is a key statistic to understanding tonight's game?
The Thunder dominated the 4th quarter, outscoring the Mavericks 35-16. Consider how rare a feat that was - heading into the playoffs, OKC's inability to put together solid 4th quarters was the #1 reason that made all of Thunder nation terrified about playing a team like Dallas in the 1st round. Whether it was against the Lakers or the Cavaliers, OKC's consistent failure in the 4th quarter was likely going to hold them back from making a deep playoff run, and this shortcoming was undoubtedly going to be tested again and again.
Here we were, heading into the 4th, with the Thunder trailing the Mavericks by 13. They had just struggled through two consecutive quarters that had first given the Mavs hope and then given the Mavs life. 12 minutes separated OKC from having to make the return trip to Chesapeake Arena with a seed of doubt planted in their minds. A year ago in Game 3 against Dallas, they fell behind and did not know how to execute a come-back win. Tonight though the Thunder proved that they had grown.
The defense stepped up, holding Dallas to only four made field goals in the quarter, and doing it without Kendrick Perkins (who left with a hip injury in the 1st quarter) and without a fouled-out Serge Ibaka for the final 2:14. The offense matched the defense, producing the Thunder's best offensive quarterly output in the entire series, and doing so when the stakes were highest.
What does this game mean for the Thunder today and moving forward?
The Thunder have completed a sweep of the defending champions and now have earned some well-needed rest. Kendrick Perkins' hip injury is at the moment unknown, but it will be good to get him a week of rehabilitation to make sure he's ready to either bang bodies with the Lakers' twin towers or hit the race track and run with the Nuggets.
In a broader sense, this series is a key stepping stone in the Thunder's development as a championship-caliber team. Dallas gave them many lessons to heed a year ago, and by the Thunder coming back after being down double-digits in the 4th quarter, a la Dallas' amazing comeback in Game 4 in the WCF, OKC proved that those lessons did not fall on deaf ears.
The Thunder are a little bit more seasoned, a little bit more battle-tested, and have vanquished the defending champions in the most resolute way possible. On to round 2.
Thunder Wonder: James Harden, 29 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, 1 block
Thunder Down Under: Serge Ibaka for holding down the interior after OKC lost Kendrick Perkins in the 1st quarter due to hip injury
Thunder Blunder: Nobody, given the series close-out win
Thunder Plunderer: Dirk Nowitzki, 34 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists
Next Game: TBD