- Tim MacMahon, ESPN Staff Writer
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- The celebration in Loud City reached such high decibel levels that the rumbles could probably be felt blocks away in Bricktown.
Kevin Durant's 3-pointer stretched the Oklahoma City Thunder's lead to 15 points with a little more than five minutes remaining in Monday's Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. There was a bunch of shoulder-shimmying and chest-bumping and imaginary championship belts being busted out on the Oklahoma City bench, as the Thunder seemed to have a series-evening win in their grasp.
Then something happened that was almost as unbelievable as the one-and-done-prone Dallas Mavericks making a realistic run for a ring.
The Mavs buckled down on defense, hopped on Dirk Nowitzki's back on offense and pulled off a historic, heart-pounding comeback for the 112-105 overtime win, putting them a victory away from a return to the Finals after five long, painful years.
This is a team that lost its second-best player to a season-ending injury when Caron Butler crumpled to the floor on New Year's Day after rupturing the patellar tendon in his knee. It's a team that expected dynamic young guard Rodrigue Beaubois to start at shooting guard and develop into a budding star, only to have his sophomore season wasted by a combination of a broken foot and a confidence crisis.
It's not a team that will pack it in just because it's down 15 points in enemy territory.
"We're never going to give up," said big man Tyson Chandler, the Mavs' emotional leader. "If they beat us, they beat us. But we're not going to give up."
Not these Mavs, a veteran-loaded bunch whose swagger intensified with every defensive stop and every Dirk bucket down the stretch. It all added up to the Mavs -- maybe the most disrespected and doubted 57-win team in NBA history -- becoming the first team in the past 15 years to win a playoff game after trailing by 15 with five minutes remaining.
"Throughout every season, there comes a time and a situation where they're going to test the courage and the mettle and the inner strength of your team," Mavs guard Jason Terry said. "This was one of those times. It's a defining moment of your season. It's one that we're going to look back on when it's all done and say, 'Hey, that was the game.'"
The Mavs managed to walk out of Oklahoma City Arena in complete control of the West finals with a 3-1 lead. That's despite never leading during the first 48 minutes of Game 4, when Durant and the Thunder came screaming out of the gates in the first quarter and opened the fourth quarter with a scoring flurry that appeared to be enough to bury the Mavs.
Once again, the Mavs popped conventional wisdom in the mouth.
The Mavs were the popular pick to be upset in the first round, considering that they had been first-round flameouts in three of the previous four seasons and lost nine consecutive games against Western Conference playoff competition before finishing the regular season with a win over the New Orleans Hornets. But they beat the Portland Trail Blazers convincingly, overcoming an awful meltdown that cost them Game 4 in the Rose Garden and caused playoff demons to dominate discussion in Dallas.
Few gave the Mavs any chance of surviving the West semifinals against the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. All they did was sweep Phil Jackson into retirement.
At this point, perhaps we should stop being surprised at the Mavs pulling off the improbable. It's beginning to feel like destiny.
This really could finally be the year for Nowitzki to go from one of the greatest players in NBA history without a ring to just one of the greatest players in NBA history. Same goes for Jason Kidd.
That future Hall of Fame duo played the leading roles in the Mavs' rally, which was made possible by suffocating defense that caused the Thunder to crumble during crunch time.
Dirk absolutely dominated the final five minutes of regulation, scoring 12 points during a 17-2, regulation-ending run that allowed the Mavs to pull even for the first time since the opening minute. He had a four-possession flurry of a 3-pointer, a pair of midrange jumpers and a 5-foot fadeaway to morph a double-digit deficit into a one-possession game.
"I'm kind of getting used to him being heroic at the end of the game," Chandler said. "You start to recognize what being a superstar is all about. He relishes those moments. When a game starts to get close, you expect him to make every big shot."
The Mavs also expect Kidd, their 38-year-old floor leader, to knock down every game-winning look he gets. That's exactly what happened in the final minute of overtime, when he got a pass from Nowitzki in the right corner, pump-faked Russell Westbrook into the first row and swished a 3.
Minutes after the Thunder's 15-point lead disappeared, so did their realistic chances of advancing to the NBA Finals. This Dallas team, so different from recent editions, was on the right side of a historic playoff comeback.
"It was almost over," said Nowitzki, who finished with his second 40-point performance of the series. "I mean, if we mess up one more time or give up one more offensive rebound, that would have been the game. So we couldn't afford any more mistakes down the stretch.
"And we were almost perfect."
The wild comeback in the West finals is an almost perfect image to symbolize the Mavs' magical, improbable, incredible season.
Tim MacMahon covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.
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