DALLAS -- Before the celebration got started, before they joined the city in a party destined to go all night, there was one thing the Mavericks needed to do: Find Kevin Durant. One by one, players hurried in his direction. First Dirk Nowitzki. Then Jason Kidd, followed by Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler. Each pulled a dazed Durant into an embrace, each whispered words of encouragement into his ear.
Oklahoma City's season came to an end Wednesday with an 100-96 heartbreaker in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, which Nowitzki coolly sealed with two free throws with 13.3 ticks on the clock. The Thunder will go home but they will do it with Dallas' respect. Maybe the Mavericks didn't expect the Thunder to roll over after Game 4's crushing 112-105 overtime defeat. But they probably didn't count on them to fight tooth-and-nail to the finish in Game 5, either.
In the locker room before the game, Kendrick Perkins told his teammates if they were going to go down, go down fighting. And that's exactly what the Thunder did. They absorbed an 8-2 run to start the game and rallied to muscle a three-point lead at halftime. Russell Westbrook (31 points) relentlessly attacked the rim while Durant (23) and James Harden (23) refused to allow the Mavericks to pull away.
"They played with unbelievable fight and spirit," said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle. "The game tonight, all the games I have been involved with over the years in the playoffs, this was as hard a game as I have ever been involved with."
The Thunder lost, but they did so because Dallas was simply a better, more experienced team. This Mavericks roster is loaded with players who have hiked near the mountaintop, and that savvy came through in Game 5. Marion was brilliant in the fourth quarter (14 of his 26 points) while Nowitzki (nine of his 26) submitted another workmanlike effort that Oklahoma City simply couldn't overcome.
"They played great basketball," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "They are a heck of a team."
Oklahoma City will learn from this experience. It always does. Durant will learn how to play through contact, how to not let players push him off his spot. Perkins will shed 15 pounds and regain the mobility he lost dealing with multiple knee injuries. Serge Ibaka will take the lessons learned from defending Nowitzki and Zach Randolph in the conference semis and come back in the fall a better player. Harden will be a year older, a year wiser and that syrupy shooting stroke of his isn't going anywhere.
"I'll tell you this," Brooks said. "Our guys aren't going to hope to get [better]. They are going to work to get there. They are focused on hitting every day on the practice floor as a day of improvement. I've never been on a team, other than my high school team, that has had as close a group of guys that are all fighting to get better."
Westbrook will be better, too. Really. No player took more of a public flogging in the playoffs more than Westbrook, whose turnovers, quick shots and mental miscues were the subject of daily debates. Perkins called the criticism of Westbrook worse than anything the oft-maligned Rajon Rondo experienced in Boston.
It's easy to forget that on an inexperienced team, Westbrook ranks as the player with the thinnest résumé. He's 22 and has been handed a job (point guard) he rarely played in college. He made major strides this season, improving his shooting percentage, free-throw percentage and defense. Sure, he has a ways to go -- reducing his turnovers and making better decisions in the paint are the next steps in his evolution -- but to suggest the Thunder should consider shopping Westbrook in the offseason is downright foolish.
His teammates know this. As the Thunder players dressed quickly after the game, each pledged complete support for their embattled playmaker. Nick Collison said that "without Russ, we wouldn't be anywhere close to what we are." Perkins praised the way Westbrook handled the adversity, saying he took it "like a G."
"It's kind of frustrating to see how much criticism [Westbrook] has been taking," Durant said. "Because he led us by playing the way he's playing the whole season. It kind of baffles me that people just start to criticize him because he's playing like that right now. He got us here as our point guard, and we leaned on him for that.
"I thought [the criticism] wasn't fair. But I can't control that. He can't control that. I was proud of how he kept his composure and never let things get to him. He deserves everything he's getting as far as accolades. He had a great year."
It won't be long before the Thunder get back to work. They are basketball junkies in Oklahoma City, a team virtually incapable of taking extended breaks. Perkins says the team is "very close" to being a title contender, citing turnovers ("Red Auerbach once told me, 'get the ball, don't give up the ball,'" Perkins said.) and an ability to keep their composure as the only things the Thunder were lacking.
These things will come. Some with time, some with work. The Thunder went back to Oklahoma City losers on Wednesday night. But it won't be long before they return as winners.