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.
Miami in 2007 was swept in the first round by Chicago. The Philadelphia Warriors in 1957 were swept out of the first round by the Syracuse Nationals. Chicago in 1999 and Boston in 1970 failed to qualify for the postseason.
The Thunder notched the 152nd sweep in playoff history and just the 60th in a seven-game series. “They have a certain look in their eye right now,” said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. “Not just that they belong but this could be their time.”
James Harden led the comeback by scoring 15 of his team-high 29 points in the fourth quarter. He also dished out three assists, all leading to 3-pointers, to contribute to nine more points in the final period. The final helper, a feed to Kevin Durant, capped a 20-7 run that lifted the Thunder from an 81-68 hole and into an 88-all tie. Harden scored or assisted on 18 points during the run.
Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki responded with a three-point play to put Dallas ahead 91-88with 5:47 remaining. But by then, the wheels carrying Dallas already had gone from wobbly to wrecked.
The Thunder answered with a 10-2 surge over the next 3 minutes, 17 seconds to take a 98-93 lead with 2 1/2 minutes left to play. Four players scored during the spurt, with Harden leading the way with four points.
Harden later hammered the final nail in the Mavs' coffin with a driving finger roll with 10.2 seconds remaining to again give the Thunder a five-point cushion.
“In many ways, this was a mirror image of last year's series, with the only difference being we weren't able to get a game,” Carlisle said. “I think five of those games last year could have gone either way. And three of these four could have gone either way, and they were the ones who got it done. So you have to tip your hat and give them credit. They're going to be tough to beat.”