OKLAHOMA CITY – If the Dallas Mavericks lose in the first round of the playoffs, they may look back at Saturday’s game as the reason why.
The Mavs were in control of Game 1 of their best-of-seven NBA Western Conference quarterfinals series against Oklahoma City for the most part. Dallas even led by seven points with 3:23 left.
But the Thunder kept coming and kept coming until they finally were able to slip past the defending NBA champions. Kevin Durant hit an 18-footer with 1.5 seconds left as the Thunder clipped the Mavs 99-98 at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“We were right there,’’ said Dirk Nowitzki, who poured in 25 points on 8-of-18 shooting. “I turned the ball over twice in the last few minutes when we were up seven, and little stuff like that put them in transition.’’
The Mavs led 94-87 with 3:23 left. But the defending NBA champs kept turning the ball over down the stretch and that enabled the Thunder to get back in the game.
“Three minutes is a long time,’’ guard Jason Terry said. “A lot of possessions left in a three-minute ballgame. “Give them credit. But for us, we’ve got to do a better job of closing out the game.’’
Nowitzki had given Dallas a 98-97 lead when he hit a pair of free throws with nine seconds left. But the Thunder called timeout, and worked the ball to Durant, who scored with Shawn Marion draped all over him.
“Good [defense], better [offense],’’ Terry said. “It happens.’’
It happened on a night when the Mavs won the battle of the boards 42-36 and seemingly was in control of the majority of this game.
“I thought both teams competed hard and left it all out there,’’ Nowitzki said. “They’re obviously more capable to defend, they’ve got athletes all the way around, they’ve got the best shot-blocker in the game.
“So they’re long and they’re athletic. So they’ve got all the skills they need to be a great defensive them.’’ The Thunder used some of their defensive savvy to keep the ball away from Terry, who was having one of those memorable games.
In the first three quarters, Terry was 8-of-9 from the field and scored 20 points. But in the fourth quarter he was scoreless and only got off one shot.
Terry said he would have to look at the film to see what the Thunder defense did differently on him in the fourth period.
“The next game if you’re in that same situation, then you can make the adjustments and try to do something different,’’ Terry said. “But instead of harping on it and worrying about what could have been, we’ll let y’all do that. “I’m fired up. I wish I can play tonight.’’
Nowitzki said the Mavs’ inability to find Terry may have cost them a shot at stealing home-court advantage away from the Thunder.
“We’ve got to find a way to get Jet the ball,’’ Nowitzki said. “I think he had the hot hand and we couldn’t even get him the ball in the fourth quarter – they denied him everywhere.
“We’ve got to counter that. Russell [Westbrook] met him all the way out to halfcourt – we couldn’t hand him the ball the ball off, so you’ve really got to give them credit. I hate to waste a game on Jet like that. He was on fire.’’
The Mavs led 26-22 in the first period and 51-48 at the half. The two teams played almost to a standstill in the third period, which ended with Dallas nursing a 73-69 lead.
Coach Rick Carlisle complained about the Thunder constantly grabbing and holding Nowitzki, with Nowitzki not getting his share of calls from the officials. But Nowitzki wasn’t about to join in with the complaints.
“I always talk during the game a lot,’’ Nowitzki said. “My style is never to complain after a game – I’ve never done that and I won’t do it now.
“It was a tough game, I thought we had our chances and we’ve got to create our breaks.’’
The Mavs turned the ball over 15 times that led to 22 points for OKC. Still, the Mavs couldn’t do anything but credit Durant for making the shot that put the Thunder over the hump.
“He made a tough shot, you’ve got to tip your hat,’’ guard Jason Kidd said. “You’re talking about one of the best players in the world on the biggest stage, and he stepped up and made a shot.
“Shawn and the guys, I thought, played great defense. You just have to tip your hat.’’
Marion still doesn’t know how Durant converted that game-winning basket.
“It was great defense,’’ Marion said. “I don’t even think he could see the rim.
“He just threw that [ball] up and it rolled in. Like I said, we should have never even been in that position, but you’ve got to give him credit because he hit a [heck] of a shot.’’
Carlisle took responsibility for not doubling Durant and taking the ball out of his hands and making someone else beat them.
“I think the important thing we need to realize is that our guys compete at an extremely high level and really worked hard to get a seven point lead with (3:23 left),’’ Carlisle said. “We made mistakes you can’t make down the stretch.
“The last shot always gets magnified. But we made some uncharacteristic mistakes that we’re not going to make any more in this series. We can’t.’’
No, the Mavs can’t. Or else this will be a short series.
“We were right there – the game was there for the taking,’’ Nowitzki said. “And we needed one more play that we didn’t come up with.’’
Durant beat the Mavs back on Dec. 29 with a 3-pointer at the buzzer that gave the Thunder a 104-102 victory. The three-time scoring champion was back to stick a knife in the Mavs’ side again on Saturday.
“That was basically a buzzer-beater tonight if you don’t have a timeout,’’ Nowitzki said. “If you have a timeout you can call it and you can move the ball and get maybe a look at it.
“This is definitely was as tough of a loss as you can get. But if a team can’t recover from it, it’s an experience one and we definitely have a lot of older guys and we’ve been through a lot.’’
Westbrook led OKC with 28 points, Durant scored 25, Serge Ibaka had 22 points and five blocks, and James Harden – in his first game since suffering a concussion last Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers – tallied 19 points.
Despite the big games from OKC’s Big 4, the Mavs walked out of the arena believing they let this one get away.
“This is going to be a great series, this is going to be one for the classics, and every game is going to come down to one or two possessions,’’ Terry said. “It came down to one possession and on one possession that we didn’t get the stop.
“We’re going to have to buckle up. It’s going to be another situation again like we just had tonight – mark my words – and we’re going to be the team that comes out with the victory.’’