Commentary

Thunder's painful loss part of process

Updated: May 24, 2011, 6:37 AM ET
By John Hollinger | ESPN.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- As charmed a life as the Oklahoma City Thunder have lived in their rapid ascent to the NBA's elite, you knew eventually they would have to go through some postseason pain before they could emerge as legitimate championship contenders.

Suffice it to say that this game qualifies.

No team in the past 15 years had blown a 15-point lead with five minutes left in a playoff game. Until Monday night.

And there's a reason for that. It takes a lot of work to blow a lead so big so fast. But in a comedy of errors, the Thunder pulled it off, and they kept the laughs rolling through a five-minute overtime that was nearly as bad.

Not only did they punt the game; they almost certainly kicked away any chance of winning the series, too. Monday's 112-105 overtime loss to the Dallas Mavericks in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals put the Thunder down 3-1 with two of the final three games in Dallas -- a scenario only two teams in history have come back from (Boston in 1968 and Houston in 1995).

Painful? This one cut to the bone. It left Kevin Durant speaking in a low monotone (with his backpack still unstrapped!) and his teammates at a loss to explain how it vanished so quickly.

"If this loss did not hurt," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said, "there's no such thing as a loss that can hurt you."

[+] EnlargeKevin Durant
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesKevin Durant had 29 points but was held scoreless in the final 10 minutes of OKC's Game 4 loss.

"I don't know what went wrong," said guard Thabo Sefolosha. "It's hard to talk about it."

How did they screw this up? Let us count the ways:

• First and foremost, by losing James Harden to a silly sixth foul 90 feet from the basket, giving Dallas two free throws with the clock stopped at 4:33 in the fourth quarter. Minus Harden, Oklahoma City's offense immediately went off the rails, scoring just six points in the following nine-plus minutes.

"When Harden fouled out," Dallas center Brendan Haywood said, "we focused all our attention on KD. That was basically it."

• By twice more fouling Dallas players 90 feet from the basket, for a total of six free throws that also saved about 20 seconds of possession time on each whistle.

"We fouled them in the backcourt and gave them [six] free throws without having any time run off the clock," Brooks said. "Was that youth? I don't know. That's how we've had success all year, playing with a young team. We just have to execute better."

• By running a "play" at the end of regulation that produced a contested 35-footer from Durant that was rejected by Shawn Marion. Brooks noted that Durant didn't put himself into great position, echoing an ongoing theme from the past two rounds.

"It wasn't well-executed," Brooks said. "They did a good job of pushing us out and taking us off the spot. We have to be stronger. We have to be able to push back without getting the foul, and Kevin was worried because he pushed back one time and got the foul. [But] everybody has to fight for their space on the floor."

"I didn't have anything else to do," Durant said. "I caught the ball almost at the half-court line, [saw] three Mavericks in front of me and had three seconds on the clock. I didn't know what else to do."

• By two missed free throws from Russell Westbrook with 2:11 left in the fourth, the only ones the Thunder earned in that stretch.

"Russell never misses free throws in the fourth quarter," Brooks said. "He always seems to be automatic."

• By taking only two shots from within 15 feet in the final 10 minutes, during which the Thunder scored just six points. "I thought we had some good looks that we missed and we turned it over," Brooks said. "Ball movement is something that we have to continue to get better at."

• By having their best player vanish from the face of the earth. Durant was once again hounded by physical off-the-ball defense, and without Harden as a pressure release Oklahoma City's offense ground to a halt. Durant didn't score at all in the final 10 minutes.

"Later on, I got the ball where I wanted to and I seen three or four guys around me and I had to make a pass," Durant said. "A few [of] those times it was just too clogged up. I didn't want to force a bad shot. I wanted to pass to my teammates. I believe in my teammates. I trust in them, but we just weren't making shots and they were."

• By losing their mojo on the boards. Oklahoma City had 20 offensive rebounds, but only one of them came in the final 10 minutes. That one, by Nick Collison with 2:48 to go in the fourth, produced their only basket in the final five minutes of regulation.

• By missing a wide-open Durant under the basket after a Sefolosha blocked shot stopped a Dallas chance to tie with a minute left. Durant was by himself for a full five seconds, but neither Sefolosha nor Westbrook saw him until it was too late.

• By having Sefolosha shoot a corner 3-pointer on the second-to-last possession of regulation. One can question whether Daequan Cook should have taken that shot in an offense-defense situation, although he was cold after not playing the entire half.

• By Westbrook trying to save a ball that was clearly going out of bounds off Dallas' Jason Terry midway through the overtime, resulting in one of the Thunder's staggering 26 turnovers.

• By a missed traveling call on Jason Kidd, who shuffled into the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer with 40 seconds left in overtime that put Dallas ahead 108-105.

Obviously, the Mavs had something to do with this as well, and we shouldn't underestimate how fantastic Dirk Nowitzki was in crunch time -- nor how palpable the experience differential between those teams felt as the lead was crumbling in the final minutes. Nowitzki described one shot -- a quick 3-pointer that surprised Collison -- he made as a "do or die."

"If it goes in, great," Nowitzki said. "If not, it just wasn't our night."

Apparently, it was.

"He made a contested 3," Brooks said. "You can't double-team that. He made a spin off the wrong foot, contested. He made that. He made one that we double-teamed on the baseline that was an impossible shot, and he made that. He took over.

Said Westbrook: "We couldn't double because of the shooters they have around him. It was tough."

We can spend all night dissecting the various strategies the Thunder might have pursued, or the different maneuvers Westbrook or Durant might have made, or whether experience was as big a factor as it seemed.

"Our youth has nothing to do with it," Durant insisted. "We've shown we can play on this level."

Yet the biggest takeaway is this: Teams don't normally just ascend from nowhere to become NBA champions without going through a bit of pain along the way.

I'm not sure the Thunder players understand that yet. But their fans may. Knowing this was likely the last game in Oklahoma City Arena this season, they began cheering the team at the end of overtime, even in the wake of the most crushing defeat in their history in this city.

"They're going to lose," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said, "and they're yelling, 'O-K-C, O-K-C.' These fans are beyond belief."

So was this collar job, unfortunately. But in all probability, it was an inevitable part of the process.