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Fran Blinebury

The youth of Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City teammates finally caught up with them in Game 4.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Epic meltdown an awful chapter in Thunder's maturation tale

Posted May 24 2011 10:16AM

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Maybe there will come a time years from now when they'll look back on it as a notch on the kitchen wall, providing tangible proof of how much they've grown. Or they'll wear it like that scar on the chin, something they can always touch as a reminder of how it feels to land face-first and what it takes to get back up.

But first they will have to get over the shock, the pain, the utter mortification of the moment.

With just over five minutes left in regulation time, long, smooth Kevin Durant was swishing a pretty-as-a-picture rainbow for a 15-point lead, then turning toward his teammates on the Thunder bench to fasten an imaginary championship belt -- a la the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers -- around his waist.

Ten minutes later, at the end of overtime, Durant and the Thunder had that belt and a 112-105 overtime loss to the Mavericks wrapped around their necks.

Welcome to Choke-lahoma City.

"They made shots, we didn't," Durant said.

If only it were that simple of an explanation. But out there on their home floor, in front of 18,203 full-throated true believers who barely had enough time to gasp, the Thunder came completely unglued, getting outscored 17-2 down the stretch.

The last time anybody saw a meltdown so fast and so complete, flying monkeys were standing around a puddle of water and a broom in Oz.

"If this loss did not hurt, there's no such thing as a loss that can hurt you," said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. "There's no question that this is a very difficult loss, but it is a loss you have to take."

What probably makes the loss more difficult is that it's been looming all season. Anyone who has followed the Thunder knew that it would eventually be looking them square in the eyes.

It was a loss born of stubbornness, youth, arrogance and inexperience all mixed into a toxic stew. The game was a confluence of all that the green Thunder have grown into in such a short time to be so threatening in the playoffs and all they still have to learn to become less dangerous to themselves.

"A game like this, the experience is something that's important," said guard Thabo Sefolosha. "I think tonight we showed that we are lacking some of it."

They showed it in so many ways, not the least of which was Durant's premature celebration when the scoreboard read 99-84 with 5:06 to go. That didn't go unnoticed by at least a few of the Mavs.

For two days leading up to the game, Durant had been wearing a scowl and talking like an angry young man who had something serious to prove after OKC was whipped in Game 3. And for 3 quarters, he played angry against Dallas and often angry with his teammates who seemed unable or unwilling to get him the ball. Then in an instant, he became a callow 22-year-old who allowed himself to signal that the game was over and the series was tied 2-2. He never scored again, missing six shots and coughing up two turnovers down the stretch.

One minute the Thunder were doing a leisurely backstroke while sipping an umbrella drink from a coconut. In the next, the veteran Mavericks were attacking them like a school of sharks.

Throughout the entire fourth quarter and especially in those faltering five final minutes, all of the flaws in the Thunder's game came together.

Point guard Russell Westbrook didn't have the first clue about how to run the offense to take advantage of OKC's lead, how to get shots going toward the basket or create opportunities to get his team to the foul line. Westbrook either pumped jumpers or went on wild forays toward the hoop.

On the occasions when the Thunder did get the ball to the frustrated Durant, he launched horrible 28-foot shots or went on panicky, out-of-control drives that resulted in turnovers. Though he finished with 29 points and 15 rebounds, Durant piled up nine turnovers, too.

"We couldn't afford any mistakes down the stretch," said the Mavs' Dirk Nowitzki, who scored 12 of his 40 points in the fourth quarter. "We were almost perfect."

At the same time, the Thunder were perfectly accommodating. They are everything that you expect out of youth -- energetic and brash and also unthinking about the consequences. Durant and Westbrook were a combined 0-for-5 with two turnovers and no points in overtime.

Each time the Thunder came down the floor and rushed through what passes as an offensive set, it created an opportunity for the Mavericks to score at the other end without running much time off the clock. Each time they fouled Dallas in the backcourt -- three times in the last four minutes -- they allowed a great free-throw shooting team to close the gap with the clock stopped.

OKC is talented enough and capable enough to win a bundle of games during the regular season and build a lead in a critical game in the Western Conference finals. But the Thunder aren't yet proficient at managing a game when the stakes are highest.

"Our youth has nothing to do with what we were doing on the floor," Durant said.

"We ran our offense. We just didn't make shots," Westbrook said.

In short, the Thunder don't know what they don't know. It's the game they've been playing all season, the gamble they've taken out onto the high wire through three rounds of the playoffs.

Perhaps years off, it will be a mark on the wall. Until then, it's a game that Loud City will remember for the loudest sound of all: Thud!

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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