Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 5/6/12
DALLAS The defending NBA champs made one last stand Saturday against the Oklahoma City Thunder. With perhaps their most complete quarter of the season, the Dallas Mavericks raced to a 13-point lead. But that lead evaporated as Thunder guard James Harden put on one of the most cold-blooded displays you'll see this postseason. He embarrassed at least three different Mavs defenders while keying a 15-2 run that allowed the Thunder to tie the score. At that point, the proud, aging Mavs surrendered in a 103-97 loss that echoed the outcomes of Games 1 and 2. It's remarkable that we're less than a year removed from Oklahoma City not being able to close out games against the Mavs in the Western Conference finals. In this year's series, the Thunder had all the answers in the fourth quarter. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant had done most of the scoring damage in the first three games, but in Game 4 Harden showed why this Thunder team has a legitimate shot at winning it all. Mavs guard Jason Terry, who made a surprise start Saturday, had no chance at staying in front of Harden at any point in the game. Jason Kidd didn't have any better luck in the fourth quarter. Then Harden blew by the Mavs' best defender, Shawn Marion, for another layup. He was simply the best player on the floor Saturday, finishing with 29 points, five assists and five rebounds. Harden patiently waited for his teammates to set picks at the top of the key before deciding how he wanted to dissect the Mavs defense. On two occasions, he fired passes to Durant, who calmly knocked down three-pointers during the comeback. Westbrook's never met a shot he didn't like, but he was content to defer to Harden down the stretch. Westbrook (12 points) had back-to-back steals in the fourth quarter, the first of which gave Oklahoma City the lead for the first time since the 1:45 mark in the second quarter. Kidd said the Mavs switched to a zone twice in the fourth quarter and tried to "blitz" Harden to the middle. Nothing worked. "Whatever we did, he made us pay," said Kidd. Kidd, who becomes a free agent this summer, said he told Nowitzki after the game he'd love to play another season with him. But for now, everything's up in the air. Mavs owner Mark Cuban blew up last year's title team in the hopes of landing either Dwight Howard or Deron Williams in free agency. Now, several more players will likely head for the exit. Terry has lobbied for a contract extension in a variety of ways this season, but he didn't sound optimistic about returning to the Mavs following Saturday's game. As he left the court, he handed his jersey to a longtime season-ticket holder and then tossed his white headband into the stands. Terry was 4 of 12 from the field and finished with 11 points. Westbrook kept him under lock and key throughout the series, and Game 4 was no different. Terry and Nowitzki both said after the game it would've been nice to keep last year's title team intact. "Every year I've been on the Mavericks team and we've had a realistic chance, it's because of the personnel," said Terry. "Look at your personnel and what they surround you with your core nucleus and you can see if you have a realistic shot. For us, it was a long shot. Nobody's going to downplay that at all. If you look at our roster, to a man, it was a long shot this year. But we still made the playoffs, but we just didn't have enough." For now, it feels like the Mavs wasted a year of Nowitzki's prime while hoping to build for the future. And you won't hear the Mavs star disagree with that notion. He's tried to be diplomatic this season, but it sounds like he doubts the wisdom of allowing players such as Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea to leave in free agency. "We would've loved to keep the troops together and give it a true shot to defend, but Mark and Donnie Nelson made a business decision to go after cap space," Nowitzki said. "We'll just have to wait and see what comes from that." Some folks have tried to say the best time to blow up a team is when your fan base is still satisfied with a world title. But the folks who shell out all that money for season tickets may have appreciated an honest shot at a repeat. Unfortunately, there was only one championship contender at the AAC on Saturday, and that team was led to a series sweep by the man with the thickest beard in the NBA.
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