Originally posted on Fox Sports Southwest  |  Last updated 5/4/12
DALLAS For half a decade, the Dallas Mavericks have mastered the art of winning close games. For this bastardized season, they've painted outside the lines as the most wobbly close-game combatants among playoff teams. But for one game on Thursday Game 3 in this first-round playoff series against a blossoming Oklahoma City team the ability to arrange for close games and the ability to win close games was supposed to mesh into a victory for the defending champs. Instead, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook happened. And "close'' never did, as the Thunder won, 95-79. Three-time scoring champ Durant finished with 31 points his first breakout game of the series on 11-of-15 shooting. Durant (labeled by Dallas coach Rick Carlisle as "the best scorer on the planet'') totaled 15 points in the first quarter and added eight more in the first nine minutes of the final period to seal OKC's 3-0 series lead. "It was good to have a good start,'' OKC coach Scott Brooks said. "He's earned that; he works as hard as anybody I've ever been around, and you knew he was going to have a good shooting game sooner or later. He's diligent in his work; he's so consistent. It's incredible to see.'' Meanwhile, sidekick Westbrook the Thunder's best player through the first two games while KD shot just 15-of-44 against the defense of Dallas ace Shawn Marion scored 20 points here, and staved off any Dallas hopes of a comeback when in the third quarter he scored 11 points. The final score is deceptive; both teams emptied their benches in the late going and Dallas scored 10 points to close. In truth, this game had a "20-point margin'' feel throughout, a fact that is terribly troubling to a Mavs team that felt it was one bounce away from winning Games 1 and 2. Among playoff teams, only the Lakers (28) have played more close games (five points or fewer) than the Mavs this year. Dallas is 10-15 in such games, and among playoff teams, only Philadelphia's winning percentage is poorer than that. The Mavs had reason to believe that "The Due Theory'' would kick in on Thursday, that the bounces that went awry in Games 1 and 2 decided by a combined total of four points -- would carom more logically and predictably here. "They threw a great game at us,'' Carlisle said. "We needed to be a lot better than we were." Added Jason Terry: "They kicked our ass in every facet of the game.'' The Mavs franchise has never trailed 3-0 in a series but in this odd season, a negative "first'' seems fitting enough. Meanwhile, OKC deserves tremendous credit for having assembled a club top-heavy in talent, with both Durant and Westbrook able to carry the sort of load that Dirk Nowitzki (17 points) so frequently shoulders alone for Dallas. The Mavs, of course, have resourcefully found an infinite number of ways to succeed over the last 12 playoff-eligible seasons. Close-game execution is among those and so is a defensive system that under coach Rick Carlisle places the club among the elite in the West. But even against Marion, Durant was too often allowed to roam free on the perimeter. And Westbrook's mid-range shooting a trouble spot a year ago when the Thunder lost to Dallas in the Western Conference Finals is suddenly an unsolvable puzzle. When you climb a mountain as Dallas did a season ago, you eventually have to come down the other side. Dirk addressed that when he said, "I don't think we took a step forward as a team. We took a step back." And now it's time for at least one final step. In the history of the league, teams that start 3-0 in the playoffs have a record of 48-35 in Game 4's (Game 4 in this series is Saturday in Dallas). And they have gone on to win the series 83 times out of 83. "We don't get caught up in things we can't control,'' said Brooks. "We just play. Our guys play hard; they try to get better every possession. And it's all these things that we talk about in practice, film sessions, huddles, time outs, and it doesn't matter. We just talk about doing what we have to do as a team to get better. We can't control the other things. We just control what we do." What OKC now controls is the series. We are likely seeing a changing of the guard in the West, but we are seeing something more: Suddenly, the competition between the Mavs and the Thunder isn't close, and specifically, the ways to handle Durant and Westbrook are beyond Dallas' grasp as well.
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