DALLAS — That young up-and-coming Oklahoma City team that made things so difficult on the Dallas Mavericks in the playoffs last year may not even let the defending NBA champions get out of the first round this time.
Even though Kevin Durant has struggled with his shot, and each of the first two games in this opening-round series has gone down to the closing seconds, the Thunder certainly aren’t in awe of Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks.
Oklahoma City has a 2-0 advantage in the best-of-7 series that shifts to Dallas for Game 3 on Thursday night.
“Game 3 is Game 7,” Mavericks guard Jason Terry said Wednesday, stopping only briefly to make that comment while bounding up the stairs from the practice court to the locker room.
“We’ve played very well the first two games, but we come away empty because we just haven’t been able to make one extra play,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “We’ve got to turn that in Game 3, and it’s not as simple as just coming home and it’s just going to happen. We have to make it happen.”
In last year’s Western Conference finals, Dallas needed only five games to get past the Thunder’s group of 20-somethings.
This time, the Thunder won the series opener on clutch shot by Durant and held on to win Game 2 despite not making a field goal in the final 4:51. They were tough, they were physical and they’re growing up in a hurry.
So what happened to that Oklahoma City team that some viewed as soft before now?
“We were young. And when you’re young, you’re still trying to learn about yourself, you’re trying to learn the league and you don’t have time to focus on the little things because you’re trying to just survive. You’re in survive mode. I don’t think we were ever soft,” coach Scott Brooks said. “The last two games, I like the fact that we just clawed and battled and fought our way…. Maturity helps, and you do it one day at a time.”
Consider that the youngest starter for Dallas in this series is 27-year-old guard Delonte West, one of two starters who wasn’t even with the Mavericks last season and is the only one in their top five not in his 30s.
One of those missing starters is Tyson Chandler, now with the New York Knicks and the winner Wednesday of the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
West would be among the oldest starters for the Thunder, who are using the same starting five from last year’s Western Conference finals.
“They have another year under their belt and they have some of the most talented players in the world,” said Jason Kidd, the Mavs’ 39-year-old point guard who has played more NBA games than any other active player. “This is a different team in sense of maturity and understanding the game. They’re getting better and that makes them dangerous.”
Russell Westbrook is averaging 28.5 points per game in the playoffs for Oklahoma City, helping make up for fellow All-Star Durant’s 15-of-44 shooting so far that isn’t even that big of a concern since Oklahoma City has won both games.
“That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I’m a winner. That’s what I want to be labeled as, a guy that wins games,” Durant said. “I know I’m not shooting the ball well but I’m just trying to do other things. I can’t dwell on the last two games. I’ve just got to move on. Move on. We’ll see what happens in the next game.”
Dallas had an extended practice session Wednesday after taking off the previous day. The Thunder worked out again at home before traveling.
Brooks said his team had a good film session and practice Wednesday. He said guys were “locked in” while talking about areas they want to improve in moving ahead in the series.
One that that won’t change for the Thunder is running the offense through Durant.
“He’s getting good looks,” Brooks said. “It seems like he’s missing the open ones and making some of the contested ones. Hopefully he can make the open ones. But he’s fine. Kevin’s a terrific player that works hard and works on his game. He’s working on his game as we speak.”
Dallas still has Nowitzki, who surprisingly missed a wide-open 3-pointer late in Game 2 before having one of trademark fadeaway shots bounce on the rim several times before missing.
“We haven’t played bad basketball. We’ve been right there,” Nowitzki said. “It’s been frustrating. Last year coming down the stretch, we knew we’d find a way to win, get the big stop, get the big shot, get to the line, whatever we needed to happen to get the win. … But we’re not going to pack it in. We’re going to keep coming.”