DALLAS — Trips down to Dallas just don't feel the same.
The Thunder's recent dominance over the Mavs has removed much of the allure from what was a storybook matchup just a short time ago.
Once seemingly bound to become the Thunder's chief rival, the Mavs haven't been a real threat to OKC for two seasons.
Perhaps this is what happens when the “little brother” grows up.
Entering Sunday night's game inside the American Airlines Center, it's now the Mavs that must hold the Thunder in high esteem.
“They took a huge step,” Mavs forward Dirk Nowitzki told reporters last month, following the Thunder's 21-point drubbing of Dallas. “They went to the Finals last year and, to me, they were actually the favorites to win it the way they ran through the whole Western Conference. Obviously, now they're more experienced. Going through tough times, you learn from losing tough games. They got a really tough team.”
While the Thunder (49-17) takes the West's second-best record into Sunday's game, the Mavs (31-34) are three games out of the playoff picture, currently sitting in the 10th spot.
It's not just their respective places in the standings. The Thunder has won nine straight against the Mavs and 10 of the past 11 meetings. Dallas hasn't defeated OKC since taking a 100-87 home victory on Jan. 2, 2012.
It's a stark difference from the “big brother-little brother scenario” former Mavs guard Jason Terry characterized the rivalry as following a Mavs win in January 2012.
Asked what changed, Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said his team grew confident.
“We just started playing well,” Perkins said. “I think (we give them) matchup problems. (Kevin Durant) seems to go off in those games and have great games.”
The last time Durant was in Dallas, he exploded for a career-high 52 points — and that was an off night, marred by Durant making just 13 of 31 shots.
In the first three games of this year's series against the Mavs, Durant has averaged 37 points, his highest scoring average against any team this season.
But it hasn't just been Durant who has turned this matchup around. Nowitzki no longer being the nightmare he used to be has allowed the Thunder to take such control that few even view this matchup a rivalry.
Asked exactly what the Thunder couldn't overcome when the Mavs were in command of the matchup, Perkins was to the point.
“A younger Dirk,” he said. “That's what the difference was. He just was battling a few injuries these last couple of years so it was a younger Dirk at the time.”
In the first 15 meetings from the start of the 2008-09 season through the 2011 playoffs, the Thunder was just 5-10 against the Mavs. One of OKC's wins came without Nowitzki in the lineup. The Thunder's 10 losses during that stretch came by an average margin of 6.5 points. The games were close, but the Mavs had mastered the Thunder.
In his 14 games against Oklahoma City during that first 15-game stretch, Nowitzki seemed unstoppable, averaging 31.7 points on 54.7 shooting.
But things took a drastic turn for Dallas following its five-game series win in the 2011 Western Conference Finals.
It's no coincidence that in the past 11 games, Nowitzki is averaging just 21.3 points on 40.4 percent shooting.
Dallas did the Thunder — and the rest of the league — a favor when it dismantled its 2011 championship team. The Mavs just haven't been the same since parting with Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler, J.J. Barea, Jason Kidd and DeShawn Stevenson.
The Thunder, of course, isn't consumed with how the tables have turned.
All that seems to matter to Oklahoma City is that Dallas has won five of six, and the Mavs are desperate to continue their current momentum.
“We know that they've been playing well, trying to make a late playoff push to get into the playoffs,” Perkins said. “We just got to make sure we come in focused and play our game.”