Knocked back on their heels and facing a 13-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter, the Thunder showed a rare pedigree and poise for such a young team. They clawed back with a 26-10 run led by James Harden and highlighted by a flurry of dunks and clutch jump shots, before cruising through the final minutes for a 103-97 victory that ended this Western Conference quarterfinal series in four games.
Harden scored 15 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter as Oklahoma City spread the court with a smaller lineup that again befuddled the Mavericks, who became only the fifth defending champion in N.B.A. history to be swept in the first round.
Kevin Durant added 24 points, and Derek Fisher and Russell Westbrook scored 12 points each as the Thunder’s depth and speed proved too much for the Mavericks, who had ousted them in five games in last year’s conference finals.
“They have a certain look in their eye right now, not that they just belong, but that this could be their time,” Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle said.
Dirk Nowitzki had a game-high 34 points and sparked what amounted to the Mavericks’ last stand in the third quarter, when they outscored the Thunder, 34-21. Jason Kidd had 16 points and Jason Terry added 11.
“It was definitely a test of our character and toughness mentally, and we responded,” Fisher said. “With a young team, that’s not something people might expect.”
Ahead, 81-68, to start the fourth quarter, the Mavericks appeared in control and ready to send the series back to Oklahoma City for Game 5 on Monday. But the Thunder stormed back, completing their comeback with dunks by Durant and Serge Ibaka, followed by a jumper from Fisher that gave the Thunder a 94-91 lead with 4 minutes 5 seconds left. From there, the Thunder clamped down defensively on Nowitzki and held Dallas to 6 points the rest of the way.
“We didn’t crumble,” Durant said. “That’s the best part of our team. We’re growing in that area and we never gave up, and we kept fighting.”
The Mavericks awoke from their malaise behind Nowitzki and Kidd, their two veteran stars who at least for the third quarter recaptured the chemistry that carried Dallas on its improbable title run last year.
Nowitzki scored 12 points in the quarter, his fadeaway floaters suddenly effective as ever, and Kidd flashed back into his point guard prime, scoring 9 points and distributing 4 assists.
And when Delonte West drilled a 3-pointer off a Kidd pass with 30 seconds left, the Mavericks took a 13-point lead heading into the fourth quarter and the capacity crowd at American Airlines Center was filled with a belief that there would be a Game 5.
“They came at us like a buzz saw in the fourth quarter,” Carlisle said. “We couldn’t stop them.”
The Thunder opened a 7-point lead in the second quarter, but the Mavericks began to exploit the absence of the starting center Kendrick Perkins and rallied to tie the score at 47-47 at halftime. Perkins was sidelined with a strained right hip late in the first quarter and did not return.
Dallas began threading passes inside to center Ian Mahinmi, who scored 5 consecutive points to give the Mavericks a 38-37 lead. Outside shots also began to open up, especially for Nowitzki, who scored 10 of his 13 first-half points in the second quarter. Mahinmi and Kidd added 7 points each for Dallas.
Harden led the Thunder with 12 points and made all three of his 3-point attempts in the first half. Durant scored 10 points, but Westbrook struggled, hitting 1 of 6 shots and scoring 6 of his 8 points at the free-throw line.
With mostly pride at stake, the Mavericks sounded especially full of swagger in hopes of extending the series. Terry, acknowledging that a sense of urgency did not work very well for Dallas in its Game 3 blowout loss, resorted to simple pregame psychology, putting the series onus on the Thunder.
“The pressure is on them all the way,” Terry said. “They’re kind of young and might not realize it, but it’s there. It’s hard to close a team out. If you do lose, then what? Now you start to think about it a little. It’s not a situation we want to be in, but we’ll take it at this point.”
It did not matter how the Mavericks approached this game, though, as the Thunder were up to the task of guaranteeing there will be a new champion.