By Phil Taylor
May 22, 2011

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Here's a thought: Let's pretend Game 3 of the Western Conference finals never happened. It just never came to pass, kind of like the Rapture. We can all reconvene on Monday night at the Oklahoma City Arena and start fresh. The OKC Thunder would no doubt agree to that proposition, after an awful shooting performance Saturday night doomed them to a 93-87 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs obviously were satisfied with the result, which gave them a 2-1 series lead, but even they couldn't have been thrilled with another wobbly fourth quarter in which what had been a 23-point lead was whittled to four. That had to have brought back nightmarish memories of the 18-point lead they blew in a first-round playoff loss to Portland.

This was ugly all around, a far cry from the first two well-played games in Dallas. It was ugly for the Thunder in general -- they shot 36.5 percent from the floor and were 0 of 16 on three-pointers until point guard Russell Westbrook finally hit their only one of the night with less than a minute left in the game. And it was ugly for forward Kevin Durant in particular -- Durant shot 7 of 22, including missing all eight of his three-point attempts. It was even ugly for Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki, who made only seven of his 21 shots, including a 1-of-6 performance from beyond the arc.

While we're on the subject of Nowitzki, he shot only three free throws, two of which came in the final moments when the Thunder fouled him to stop the clock. Yet he drew far more contact than he did in Game 1, when he went to the line 22 times. This isn't to say that one way of calling the game was right and one was wrong, but when the officiating can vary that widely from game to game, something's out of whack. "In terms of legal limits I believe the line may have been crossed at times," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said diplomatically of the way the Thunder defended Nowitzki. "If so, the league will see that."

Nowitzki only had four points at halftime, but the Mavs still led 52-36 thanks to perhaps the only aspect of the game that was a pleasure to watch -- the Dallas defense. The Mavs forced the Thunder into missing 13 of their first 17 shots, taking a 27-12 lead after the first quarter. "We played championship level defense for the first time in the series," Carlisle said. "Now the challenge is to sustain it."

The Mavs were much more aggressive and physical on defense than they had been earlier in the series, doubling Durant on pick-and-rolls as well as when he would post-up on the low block and forcing the ball out of his hands. "They took us out of our sets," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "They trapped the basketball and got us on our heels and that's not the way we play. They really pushed us off our spots."

Still, Oklahoma City had its share of open looks, they just couldn't hit them. They built this loss brick by brick. When they made their furious late comeback and reduced the Dallas lead to six with under four minutes left in the game, Westbrook and guard Daequan Cook came down and shot consecutive open three-point attempts. Clank. Clank. That was the game in a nutshell.

If there was a silver lining for the Thunder, it was the re-discovery of the good Westbrook. After the bad Westbrook struggled in Game 2 and sat out the entire fourth quarter, the good one led the late comeback in Game 3. The Thunder isolated him against the smaller J.J. Barea, and Westbrook abused him for eight straight fourth-quarter points during one stretch. Barea looked over at the Dallas bench at one point and just shrugged, as if to say he'd tried just about everything.

But it's the Thunder that will have to come up with something new if they're going to keep the series from getting away from them in Game 4. They have started slowly in all three games of the series, and the problem is getting worse. "I don't know," Brooks said. "We've got to think. We've got to work. We've got to get better."

And they've got to do it quickly. It didn't seem that Durant had any answers in that ubiquitous backpack of his, the one he brings to all of his postgame press conferences. "I was telling myself after the game ...," he began, then stopped himself, as though he was struggling to figure out what to say. "I get my shots up every day. I work on my shooting every day. It's just a matter of staying confident. I know my teammates will pick me up and keep me positive. I'm in good hands. I'm fine."

He's probably right. After all the ugliness of Game 3, both he and Nowitzki are likely to bounce back with much better performances on Tuesday night and elevate their teams with them. And that would be a beautiful thing.

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