No matter how you slice it, last year's Western Conference Finals is a painful memory for the Thunder.
It's not just because Oklahoma City was ousted by Dallas in five games. That just happened to be the end result.
What stings is the way it happened.
Frankly, the Thunder collapsed in the final two contests.
In Game 4, Dallas outscored OKC 28-6 to steal a seven-point overtime win on the Thunder's home floor. In Game 5, the Mavs put the finishing touches on the series with a second late-game surge, a 17-6 spurt in that one.
Both games were offensive disasters for the Thunder. And as the curtain is lifted on the rematch in an opening-round series, no one is quite sure those same ills won't pop up again.
The Thunder, for now, is going in saying the right things.
“After that Game 4, when we were up 15 and we lost, it just taught us that every possession late in the game is key,” said Kevin Durant. “We can't give away possessions. We can't think that since we're up it's not important to execute. We got to take good shots. I think we'll do a better job. Hopefully we do a better job if we're in that position again. We'll see what happens.”
The disturbing thing is that throughout the regular season, we saw flashes of the Thunder's inability to close out games with crisp offensive production. Three of the final four regular season defeats were a result of poor offensive execution. In fact, Oklahoma City finished the regular season ranked 19th in efficiency in the last minute of two-point games.
“Offensive droughts often times come from a lack of execution and not getting the shot that you want,” said Derek Fisher. “I think that's an area where we have the opportunity to improve a great deal, and so that in the second half of games and down the stretch in big games, which every playoff game will be, you have the ability to execute. Get the ball where you want to get it to and have proper spacing on the floor.
“Those are things that Scotty has continued to focus on throughout the season. But with limited practice time and limited days in between games, I think you did see that slippage in a young team like ours. Hopefully in this postseason, having a day in between each game and playing the same team, there will be some things we can focus on in terms of our execution offensively.”
Brooks said he hasn't mentioned the final three games of last year's series with the Mavs to his team in the days leading up to Saturday's Game 1. But in all three of the final contest, offense doomed the Thunder big time and ultimately led to the Thunder's unceremonious exit.
Nonetheless, Brooks sounds confident that his team has turned the corner.
“Offensively, overall, those numbers have improved,” Brooks said. “We're third in the league in scoring and we're third in the league in field-goal percentage. When I look at fourth-quarter offense, we have to get good shots. It's always difficult to get good shots because everybody ratchets up their defense. We just have to focus on executing our play and getting a good shot. That's all we look at.”
When dry spells did plague the Thunder this season, the common refrain by Brooks and players was shots simply didn't fall. Very rarely did anyone express disappointment in a lack of execution.
But what will the Thunder do now if ever the shots continue to rim out?
“I think we continue to do the things that we were doing to get those good looks at the basket,” Fisher said. “But I think…probably what we'll find ourselves experiencing in the playoffs is that defensively we have to continue to get stops. Even if the shots aren't going in, we have to continue to get stops on the defensive end.”
The Thunder, Fisher said, can't compound the problem.
“Sometimes shots don't go in,” Fisher said. “You get great looks, they just don't go in. But we're talented enough, athletic enough, smart enough to defend and rebound and force teams to get frustrated on their offensive end as well and win games with our defense.”
A look back at how offensive droughts knocked Oklahoma City out of the playoffs, with the Thunder's inability to score causing it to blow big leads late in the final two games of last year's Western Conference Finals.
GAME 3: MAY 21, 2011
THE RUN: In the first 14 minutes, the Thunder was outscored 35-12. Oklahoma City made just 4-of-20 shots over that span and turned it over eight times.
THE STAT: The Thunder didn't score on consecutive possessions until the 8:59 mark of the second quarter. By then, OKC had already fallen behind by as many as 23.
THE RESULT: Mavs, 93-87.
GAME 4: MAY 23, 2011
THE RUN: In the game's final 10 minutes, 6 seconds, the Thunder was outscored 28-6. The Thunder took a commanding 99-84 lead with 5:06 remaining in regulation.
THE STAT: The Thunder missed 13 of its final 16 shots and turned it over four times in the final nine minutes.
THE RESULT: Mavs, 112-105 in overtime.
GAME 5: MAY 25, 2011
THE RUN: In the final 5 1/2 minutes, the Thunder was outscored 17-6.
THE STAT: After taking a 90-83 lead with 5:49 remaining, the Thunder went 2-of-9 from the field with six turnovers.
THE RESULT: Mavs, 100-96.