OKLAHOMA CITY -- Kevin Durant sank to the Ford Center floor, arms down, head dangling between his legs. There are losses and then there are losses, and the Thunder's 112-105 overtime defeat to Dallas in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Monday was clearly one of the latter. All the energy, all the emotion Durant and his baby-faced teammates had opened with was gone, erased by a stunning late surge by a Mavericks team that was too tough, too savvy, too complete for the Thunder to close out.
"I feel upset," Durant said after the Thunder squandered a 15-point lead in the final 4:48 of regulation and fell behind 3-1 in the series. "I let the city down."
It was an emotional moment for an emotional, 22-year-old kid who, without question, has nothing to hang his head about. No, Durant did not play well. His 29 points and 15 rebounds were overshadowed by nine turnovers and a head-scratching, 30-foot three-pointer with the game tied and three seconds left in the fourth quarter that Shawn Marion easily blocked. He shot 9-of-22 from the field and didn't score in the extra period. But Durant is the face of the city -- not the team, the city -- and he can't hang his head after losing to a team with an impossibly complete superstar (Dirk Nowitzki), a grizzled playmaker (Jason Kidd) and the kind of depth that makes taking four games from Dallas a daunting task.
Really: Is there anyone left doubting the Mavs? They shed the soft label -- if it was ever really attached -- in a four-game demolition of the Lakers and are one win away from dispatching a young, talented Oklahoma City team that never bought into the belief that it wasn't supposed to be here yet. They have Nowitzki (40 points) who, quite simply, is an impossible assignment. The 7-footer capped another statement game with all 12 of his fourth-quarter points during Dallas' regulation-closing 17-2 run that erased a 99-84 deficit. He tossed in fadeaways like it was Pop-a-Shot and sank a pair of game-tying free throws with 6.4 seconds remaining to pull Dallas even at 101-101.
"Dirk Nowitzki," Durant said, "was great."
They have Kidd, a reinvented rugged defender and three-point shooter still thriving in his twilight years. It was Kidd pushing Durant deeper and deeper out on the perimeter when Dallas dropped into a zone. And it was Kidd (17 points, seven assists) who rattled home a tiebreaking three-pointer with 40 seconds to play in overtime.
"People still think that Kidd is not a good shooter," Nowitzki said. "Over the years, he has proved everybody wrong. He made big shots for us this season. Anytime he is open down the stretch, I think it is going in."
As Nowitzki and Kidd spurred the offense, the Mavs' defense locked up. Durant's drives started 25, 30 feet from the rim. Russell Westbrook found two or three defenders waiting for him in the paint and a cluster of hands slapping at the ball. They limited Oklahoma City to 29.2 percent shooting in the fourth quarter and watched as a frustrated Thunder team (26 turnovers) booted the ball away. There is a nastiness to this Dallas D, a surly, "hit you once, twice, three times" mentality that has made it, at times, tough to score against.
"We're game-planning like crazy for [Durant]," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "We're chasing him, we're double-teaming him out to halfcourt a lot of the time. He's receiving a lot of attention. We got our hands on some balls and those deflections, they just showed how much we wanted to hang in and give ourselves a chance to win."
They have a great chance to win the series now, headed home to an energized American Airlines Center on Wednesday against a team that looks like it has taken a haymaker to the gut. Oklahoma City brought the energy in Game 4: Westbrook bellowing at the crowd, Durant cinching the imaginary title belt around his waist. Even the ball boys chipped in. In between Nowitzki's game-tying free throws, a group of them hustled onto the floor to mop up what must have been a deep puddle for as long as it took them to soak it up.
This was their game, their Super Bowl and they kicked it away. "Our youth has nothing to do with it," Durant said. But it does. Young teams take quick shots with a lead in the fourth quarter, cough the ball up down the stretch and allow the magnitude of the moment to creep into their brains. They have played with the maturity of seasoned pros throughout most of the 2011 playoffs, but in this one, the Thunder acted their age.
Oklahoma City has faced elimination before, but never against a team this good all around. Coach Scott Brooks called this game a tough loss "for our organization, for every player, for every coach, for the fans," and his players' body language backed him up. In a hushed section of the arena late Monday night, Durant gave his mother a hug before quickly disappearing down a hallway. He wanted to escape this game, this feeling. He wanted to move on. Against this Dallas team, that may be too tall a task.