DALLAS — This is the Thunder team that you remember, isn't it, Thunder fans?
The one that defends like Dobermans. The one that shoots like deadeyes. The one that scares the bejesus out of the rest of the NBA.
It's a squad that went missing regularly since the All-Star Break, but Thursday night, it came back with a vengeance.
Thunder 95, Mavs 79.
Be afraid, NBA. Be very afraid.
“They're not going to give you anything,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of his team's opponent in this first-round playoff series. “You're going to have to earn it.
“Tonight, we earned it.”
Did they ever.
“This is a big stage and a big win for us,” Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook said. “Hopefully, we can do the same thing Saturday.”
Don't look now, but the Thunder is on the verge of sweeping the defending champs. Listen, I know that Dallas is the No. 7 seed in the West, but this is a veteran team. It has lots of fight, lots of experience and lots of resolve.
The Thunder has knocked it right out of them.
The Mavs are a team defeated.
Sure, they might win a game before this series is over. They might win Saturday night. But it sure doesn't feel like they've got much left in them.
Those first two games in Oklahoma City, Thunder fans worried about how close the outcomes were. Shouldn't the boys in blue be winning by more? Should this be cause for concern?
But the truth is, everyone in Dallas saw those close calls differently. They looked at the effort that the Mavs gave. They looked at the poor shooting from Thunder star Kevin Durant. And they realized they had no wins to show for it.
“Our goal was to come out swinging,” Mavs star Dirk Nowitzki said of Game 3. “You've got to give them credit. They threw a heck of a game at us.”
When the Thunder came out Thursday and played its best game of the series, it was a gut punch. The Mavs were staggered from start to finish.
The Thunder never trailed.
It started on the defensive end. What Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison did against Dirk was clinical. They forced tough shots. They kept him moving. They never let him find a rhythm.
Dirk's final line: 6 of 15 for 17 points.
Really, though, those guys have been playing well against Dirk throughout the series.
But the biggest improvement?
He went 15 of 44 from the floor in the first two games, but on Thursday night, he went 11 of 15. He scored 31 points. He looked smooth. He seemed confident.
And with Russell Westbrook and James Harden continuing to produce offensively, this was as complete a game as the Thunder has played in weeks.
“We were treating it like a Game 7,” Durant said. “We wanted to come out with a sense of urgency.”
The Thunder did just that, and in the process, it served notice of just how good this team can play, how tough this team can be. Doing that against a team that was in a must-win situation was a huge statement.
“I think this might've been one of the best games of the year,” Westbrook said.
The Thunder Bandwagon is picking up some serious steam.