DALLAS — Sweeping the Mavs seemed like such a grand notion for the Thunder.
Bouncing the defending champions. Avenging the Western Conference meltdown of a year ago. Showing Big Brother that Little Brother is growing up fast.
Oh, what fun.
But before all the fashionably late fans had even settled into their seats at the American Airlines Center, beating the Mavs on Saturday night became not a novelty but a necessity. That's because Kendrick Perkins went to the bench, then to the locker room with an injury. The Thunder big man and defensive anchor was soon ruled out for the rest of the game with a right hip strain.
The extent of the injury is unknown.
Good thing the Thunder went ahead and figured out a way to end this series Saturday night.
Thunder 103, Mavs 97.
Allowing the Mavs to extend this series and send it back to Oklahoma City could've led to disaster. Sure, an NBA team has never come back from a 3-0 deficit, but messing around with a savvy, veteran team if your best defender might be sidelined for awhile is dangerous business.
“When you have an opportunity to eliminate a team and close it out,” Thunder veteran Derek Fisher said, “you have to take full advantage of it.”
He would know.
Fisher has played in hundreds of playoff games, and he's seen how these series can turn. How a sure thing can change in a heartbeat.
He played that way, too. In nearly 30 minutes of action, he hit 5 of 6 shots, scored 12 points and had a ridiculously good plus-minus ranking of plus-21.
Fisher wasn't the only one who played like he was motivated to end this series. Nazr Mohammed. Nick Collison. Serge Ibaka. Kevin Durant. All of them played inspired basketball.
But none were more inspired than James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
What those two did in the fourth quarter bordered on unbelievable. Westbrook was as good defensively as he could've been, coming up with one timely steal and rebound after another. And Harden was unbelievable offensively, hitting 6 of 9 shots and scoring 15 points in the fourth quarter.
The Mavs knew what he wanted to do, and they were still powerless to stop him.
“We could've easily said, ‘We go back home next game, so we can try to close it out at home,'” Harden said. “But these guys fought and fought. We're some fighters.”
Good thing, too.
The loss of Perkins put this team on its heels for a bit. The Thunder tread water for the rest of the first quarter and throughout the second quarter. But then in the third quarter, the Mavs built a double-digit lead of which the Thunder showed few signs of being able to crawl out.
“Perk is a big part of what we do,” Durant said. “Just his leadership and his toughness out on the floor was definitely missed in the second half, but his health is way more important to us.”
Westbrook, sitting next to his tag-team partner, nodded.
“It's tough to see our big fella go out.”
But finally, the Thunder got its feet back under it and put away the Mavs.
Remember how the Thunder couldn't seem to close out the Mavs a year ago? Those days seem long ago and far away now.
“It was definitely a test of our character,” Fisher said of losing Perk and still winning Game 4. “And we responded. That's something that with young teams people don't necessarily expect or assume is going to happen. But these guys have shown that they have the mental toughness to go out there and play with the best teams and figure out a way to get the job done.
“Tonight was a great example of not giving up on the game and playing every second that we were out on the floor.”
Now, Oklahoma City has a chance to rest — and to give Perk a chance to heal. When he's re-evaluated Sunday, he might be deemed ready to go. Or he might be looking at a few days out. There's no way to know at this point. But he'll surely be in better shape if he has four or five days to rest.
And after sweeping the Mavs, that's the kind of break the Thunder will receive.
It's a break in more ways than one.
“We're fortunate to get out of here with this win,” Fisher said. “Hopefully now we'll have a few extra days to give Kendrick time to get himself better and be ready to be out there with us in the first game of the next series.”
The Thunder Bandwagon is gathering some serious steam with this sweep, but it will sure run better in the second round with its meanest, toughest hombre along for the ride.