Posted May 1 2012 11:45AM
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Closing time was supposed to be reserved for the veterans, the defending champs, the team with the future Hall of Fame 7-footer with the supernatural game.
Someone forgot to tell that to the Oklahoma City Thunder and their young core of stars, who have defied everything we've come to understand about the vetting process for potential championship teams and the trials and tribulations they are supposed to endure.
They've won both of their games against the Mavericks in their first-round series, escaping by a combined four points on their home floor, by outplaying Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks when it mattered most ... in the final seconds.
Kevin Durant won Game 1 with a jumper with 1.5 seconds left and Durant and James Harden sank six free throws in the final 50 seconds to finish off the Mavericks in Game 2.
But the most unstoppable force in this series so far is not Nowitzki, who's been great. (Though his turnovers late in Game 1 opened the door for the Thunder's rally from a seven-point deficit in the final two and a half minutes.) It's been Thunder All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, who has pounded the Mavericks with 28 and 29 points, respectively.
"He's the guy that's been killing us," Nowitzki said of Westbrook, who has been unstoppable on offense and played shut-down defense on Mavericks veteran shooter Jason Terry in spot duty late in both games.
"He's playing great," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said after his team couldn't slow Westbrook down in Game 2. "We start off the game double-teaming him. He split us, broke us down and got to the rim. It has been tough. He's hitting shots. We have done a decent job about keeping him out of the paint, but he's stroking it."
Like Durant, Harden and even Thunder power forward and league shot-blocking king Serge Ibaka, Westbrook is still checking the mirror every morning for new chin whiskers.
Well, Harden's got the beard thing down. But you get the point.
The "young Thunder" label might fit on paper, when you're going strictly by birth certificates. But the Thunder we've seen so far has looked nothing like the group that panicked in tight situations against the Mavericks during their Western Conference finals matchup last year.
Instead of cracking under the late-game pressure, the Thunder have shown a surprising patience this time around, exuding a calm and confidence that evaded them in these same situations before.
The Mavericks had chances to snatch both of these games in the final seconds and couldn't close. They've put the Thunder to the test in every way imaginable. And what look like lucky bounces to some (Shawn Marion) looks more like a newfound resolve.
"That's what Dallas does," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of the way his team is being tested mentally and physically in the closing minutes of these games. "They challenge you. Not only in their physical play, because you have to chase, you have to fight through every screen and you have to always stay with it. But mentally, they challenge you."
The Mavericks challenged them in the first quarter Monday night, with Nowitzki going after the Thunder's enforcer, veteran center Kendrick Perkins with a hard shoulder to the chest. Things got heated on both sides, but the Thunder responded by turning a two-point lead into 16-point cushion in the second quarter.
Even after the Mavericks flipped the script and started switching their defense up to lock the Thunder down in the second half, Westbrook, Durant and Harden did not flinch. They continued to play the same as they did when they were rolling.
And when they needed the big plays, they made them.
"It was a big win," Westbrook said. "A lot of guys stepped up, especially on the defensive end. We got defensive rebounds, got loose balls, and that is what the playoffs are all about, toughness."
No one embodies that toughness better than Westbrook. He was roasted by the media and fans during that conference finals matchup last year, when both he and Durant struggled under the weight of increased expectations in the final three games.
The debate has raged this season as to whether Westbrook's game has matured to the point where he can be viewed as the sort of floor leader capable of leading a championship team.
Brooks doesn't need to be convinced.
"There's no question that Russell has developed from the day we drafted him through his hard effort and commitment that he puts into the team," Brooks said. "We're seeing it in front of our eyes. He's four years in this league and a two-time All-Star at 23 years old. He's still going to challenge himself to get better. He and the rest of the guys, they're not mistake-free. They all make mistakes, but Russell's mistakes are always with a pure heart. He plays with his emotions, with a lot of passion and enthusiasm. He's improved a lot and I talk to him constantly and he knows that he has to keep getting better. He's not a finished product."
He's getting there, though, just like the Thunder.
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