They knew the defending champs, with their backs against a historic wall, would deliver their best shot with the series on the line.
But more than anything, Oklahoma City Thunder players knew they were good enough — good enough to finish the job of overthrowing the Dallas Mavericks in dominant fashion.
The Thunder closed out the Mavs with a 103-97 win on Saturday night inside American Airlines Center, completing its first playoff sweep with a riveting fourth-quarter comeback that showed just how much this team has matured in 11 months.
When these two teams met in last year's Western Conference Finals, it was the Thunder that wilted down the stretch, with OKC's final two losses defined by blown leads late and an inability to close out games with any consistency. The Mavs pounced on those problems and marched to a 4-1 series victory before eventually earning a championship parade.
This time, perhaps fittingly, Oklahoma City erased a 13-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter and outscored the Mavs 35-16 in the final period to move on to the semifinals for the second straight season.
“It was a tough series for us last year,” said Thunder guard Russell Westbrook of the West Finals.
“Obviously, we didn't get the outcome we wanted. But it taught us a lesson, to come back this year with a lot more toughness. I think we did that this series and throughout this season. And hopefully we can continue to do that.”
The Thunder will now face the winner between Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round, two teams the franchise has history with. Oklahoma City defeated the Nuggets 4-1 in the first round last season and lost 4-2 to the Lakers in the first round two seasons ago. The Lakers currently lead the series 2-1.
While the Nuggets and Lakers wrap up their series, the Thunder can sit back and prepare for either while enjoying the rare feat it just accomplished.
No team in NBA history has come back from a 3-0 deficit, so it seemed only a matter of time before the Thunder put the finishing touches on the Mavs. But by sweeping Dallas, the Thunder made the Mavs just the fifth defending champion to fail to win a playoff game in its title defense.