This is how thin the line between experience and age can become. Last year, the Mavericks' depth, experience and chemistry became a lethal combination and helped them out-class Oklahoma City in five games to capture the Western Conference title on their way to an NBA championship. But on Saturday, a Thunder team that was just a year older showed that it learned from the lessons of that bitter conference finals series with a 103-97 victory over Dallas to complete a sweep of their first-round series with the defending champions.
Along the way, the Thunder made a strong statement about their championship potential: They showed grit in rallying from a 13-point deficit early in the fourth quarter, their depth by winning without injured center Kendrick Perkins and cool resolve with several clutch plays in the final minutes to hold off the Mavs. And as Dallas ponders whether this is the end of a magnificent run of success, the Thunder took a big step toward a run of their own.
• And who was the guy making those clutch plays for Oklahoma City in the final minutes? Not Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, the Thunder's hottest hand in the series. With the game on the line, Oklahoma City put the ball in James Harden's hands and set up isolation plays the Mavericks couldn't slow, even when they tried defensive strategies often reserved for star scorers. The Mavs tried tracking Harden with an extra defender, but he still got to the rim for many of his 29 points. They put one of their best defenders, Shawn Marion, on Harden late in the fourth quarter, but he continued to rack up a 15-point final period, hitting 6-of-9 on the way and dishing out three assists, as well.
Harden knew how hot he was: With 8:08 remaining in the fourth quarter and Delonte West guarding him, Harden had the gumption to wave off Durant, the league's scoring champ, in favor of an isolation play for himself. Harden breezed past West, took a big step into the lane and dropped in a soft floater as part of a 15-2 run fueled entirely by Harden -- nine points off his slashing drives, and six on a pair of three-pointers by Durant off Harden kickouts. He even had the game-sealing basket -- an isolation finger-roll for a 102-97 lead with 10 seconds remaining, putting an exclamation mark on a dynamic performance.
• Harden was so good that it was easy to lose track of the defensive job Dallas did on Westbrook, who carried the Thunder to their first three wins in the series with a barrage of mid-range jumpers, 44 percent three-point shooting and attacking drives. This time, the Mavericks kept him under control, tracking him with two -- and sometimes three -- defenders on the perimeter and harassing Westbrook into a 3-of-12 shooting night.
The mid-range jumper was rarely an option, as Westbrook was 0-for-4 those shots, and all four of his three-point attempts misfired. But he still created plays with his speed and athleticism against the aging Dallas backcourt: He had six assists, made two key steals on consecutive plays midway through the fourth quarter, and was 6-of-8 from the free-throw line, often getting to the stripe after slipping past Dallas' first line of defense and into the paint. Still, Westbrook was far from the unstoppable force he had been in the first three games.
• The Thunder did itself a favor by sealing up its first-round series on Saturday, because it now has time to figure out if Perkins' injury will be a lingering concern and give him time to recover. The Thunder acquired Perkins a year ago to help them match the physical frontcourts of the West's elite teams. And once he went out with 4:09 remaining in the first quarter on Saturday with a strained right hip, the Thunder were placed in situations that were constantly precarious.
The three players Oklahoma City used in his stead -- Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed -- all had three or more fouls by late in the third quarter, and Ibaka fouled out late in the fourth. That made it difficult for the Thunder to aggressively defend Dallas inside. The good news: Perkins walked off the court -- albeit wincing in pain the whole way -- after drawing his second foul while defending a Jason Terry drive along the baseline. Perkins reached for his hip following the play, but didn't draw immediate attention to the injury. Thunder fans can hope those signs point to only a minor setback.
• This series loss will linger over the Mavericks going into an offseason during which their championship core may be broken up. But the play of that core in this series should generate plenty of discussion. Key players like Terry and Marion struggled during key points of the series, and Dallas' woes on Saturday point largely to those two.
Marion had four turnovers, missed his only two three-point attempts and barely factored into the fourth quarter of Saturday's loss. Terry was just 4-of-12 from the field on Saturday and was a mere 7-of-22 in the final two games. And even Nowitzki -- who has come through in so many big moments for the Mavericks -- faltered down the stretch, going 1-of-10 from the field in the game's final 19:12. Seeing a defending champ get swept in the first round is certainly a shock, but it becomes less surprising when the core that led them to that title slumped at such an important time.
• The only reason Dallas was in position to win on Saturday, though, was because Nowitzki was brilliant through the middle portion of the game. Sure, his finishing performance wasn't pretty, but for a quarter-and-a-half Nowitzki brought back images of the last postseason, when his array of step-backs, fadeaways and up-and-unders were nearly unguardable.
When the game tightened up at the end of the second quarter, the Mavericks ran their offense through Nowitzki on six straight possessions, getting nine points on a pump-fake jumper, two step-backs and a kickout to Terry for a three-pointer, knotting the game at 47-47 in the process. They did it in the third, as well, and Nowitzki scored seven of Dallas' first 14 points in the first five minutes of the third quarter, leading a 14-5 spurt to start the quarter that helped Dallas build a 13-point lead.
But in another sign that so much has changed, Nowitzki couldn't sustain that momentum, and in the fourth quarter he missed six shots from nine feet or closer, including a pair of shots at the rim in the final two minutes when the Mavericks were desperate for a score.