Coach Rick Carlisle, unamused, said his team of ring-less veterans better focus on the force before them, and they did with a dominant defensive performance Saturday night for a 93-87 victory in Game 3. Dallas regained control of the series with a 35-12 opening run and held on late to grab a 2-1 lead.
Game 4 is Sunday night back at the Oklahoma City Arena.
"It's important to point out that this is the best team we've played in the playoffs. I mean they're better than the Lakers and they're better than [the Portland Trail Blazers], and the numbers bear that out," Carlisle said. "They're scoring 109 points a game off us. I think it's important to recognize that, and we've got to attack this team very aggressively because they're good."
The Thunder, collectively a decade younger than their 30-something counterparts, rallied from an early 11-point deficit in Game 2 and dominated the fourth quarter behind a strong bench performance and 24 points from Kevin Durant. A more passionate Mavs defensive effort limited Durant to 7-of-22 shooting in Game 3 with Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson forcing him into difficult shots.
Durant, who was shooting 51.2 percent in the first two games, still finished with 24 points by making 10 of 11 free throws.
Oklahoma City shot 55.7 percent in Game 2, was better than 51 percent in the first two road games, yet in the franchise's first Western Conference finals home game, the Thunder -- averaging better than 104 points on front of their frenzied home crowd -- were held to 12 points in the first quarter, 29.4 percent shooting in the first half and were 1-of-17 from 3-point range.
Even with all those negative offensive numbers, the Thunder, sparked by Russell Westbrook going isolation for 14 of his 30 points, got within six points at the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter. They had chances to cut the deficit further, but poor offensive possessions, including three consecutive early shot-clock 3-pointers that all missed badly, sealed the Mavs' victory.
Dallas admitted to taking Oklahoma City lightly after the Game 1 victory. Carlisle believes his team got the message.
"Right now they're just a better basketball team [than the Lakers]," Carlisle said. "They're in the Western Conference finals and they're scoring on us at a high rate. I look at how we've fared against all three opponents and they're our toughest challenge."
The Mavs took their first-round series in six games, mostly having their way with the low-possession Trail Blazers outside of the Game 4 fourth-quarter collapse at the Rose Garden. The loss seemed to refocus the Mavs on their championship aspirations and led to a seven-game win streak, including a stunning sweep of the two-time champion Lakers, who Dallas limited to just 88.3 points a game.
Kobe Bryant scored 36 points in Game 1, which the Mavs won by rallying from a 16-point, third-quarter deficit and then locking down Bryant in the fourth quarter. Bryant was limited to 23.3 points a game on 45.8 percent shooting.
"You know, Portland and L.A. obviously are bigger teams, and now we're facing a different animal," said Dirk Nowitzki, who has scored 48 and 29 points in the opening two games of the West final. "We're facing athletes on the wing, and we're having a tough time getting some stops."
After the Game 2 loss, the first home playoff defeat for the Mavs which put them on the road for the first time with the risk of falling behind in a series, Carlisle said Dallas didn't deserve to win the game. Chandler, the team's emotional leader and defensive anchor, said the stinging defeat should have served as a wake-up call.
"Sometimes you need to get hit on the chin and get woke up," Chandler said. "They hit us on the chin. Hopefully, that woke us up."
Apparently it did.
Jeff Caplan covers the Mavericks for ESPNDallas.com.