Thunder-Mavericks Preview

Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd were told Tuesday to stay home and

relax. The day after leading the Mavericks to one of their greatest

comeback victories, and the day before they could earn another

chance at their first NBA title, they deserved some time to lounge

around and let it all soak in.

Besides, when they arrive at work Wednesday, coach Rick Carlisle

will have plenty of other things for them to think about.

Like getting more rebounds, committing fewer turnovers and

playing better defense the first 43 minutes so they don’t need

another historic comeback.

Carlisle doesn’t expect his veteran squad to lose its focus

after going up 3-1 in the Western Conference finals and getting a

day off, but he’s not taking any chances. With the Oklahoma City

Thunder on the ropes, he wants Dallas to knock them out right away,

in Game 5 at home on Wednesday night.

”I know that (the Thunder) are going to come in tomorrow and

they’re going to come back at us hard, as they’ve done every

game,” Carlisle said. ”We’ll have to play our best game to close

them out. … We’ve got to be careful about getting away with how

happy we are.”

History shows they should be pretty giddy.

Only eight teams have overcome a 3-1 deficit. Only two did it by

winning twice on the road, which Oklahoma City would have to do,

and those two teams had the experience and wisdom to pull it off:

the defending champion Rockets in 1995, and the 1968 Celtics, who’d

won nine of the previous 11 titles.

The youth and inexperience of the Thunder was evident in their

Game 4 collapse.

Leading by 15 with 5 minutes left, Oklahoma City was cruising

toward tying the series at 2-2. Playing at home, in a game they’d

never trailed, All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook

couldn’t make it hold up.

Durant missed his final six shots. He was so distraught

afterward that he didn’t even speak with his mom or grandmother.

His spirits weren’t much higher Tuesday.

”It’s a bad feeling, but we’ve got faith,” he said. ”I’m just

going to lay it all on the line.”

Thunder coach Scott Brooks refuses to use youth as an excuse for

anything, always noting that even in three years his best players

will still be in their mid-20s. He sees this game as one of the

lumps that comes with growing up as NBA players.

His immediate concern is how they respond, primarily Durant.

”When you get punched, you have to get up,” Brooks said. ”You

have no other choice. If you don’t, you’re not going to grow,

you’re not going to get better as a player.”

Oklahoma City had been incredibly resilient, never losing

consecutive games this postseason and six times during the regular

season. Only once did the Thunder lose three in a row, and that was

a string of games against eventual division champions right after

their rotation-shaking trade for center Kendrick Perkins.

In their one playoff series last season, Oklahoma City

immediately followed its third loss with their fourth. This season,

the Thunder are 1-0 when facing elimination, having won a Game 7

against Memphis last round.

”We can still make it a series,” said Brooks, a backup point

guard on the ’95 Rockets. ”It’s always about being mentally ready

for the challenge, because it is a challenge. There’s no question

we have a big challenge tomorrow, but it’s a challenge that our

guys will embrace.”

Before this series, Kidd said the Mavericks’ experience would

only matter if they faced a situation where their wisdom would

matter. It was easy to see down the stretch Monday night.

Nowitzki did most of the scoring, but Kidd contributed some

great defense and the go-ahead 3-pointer in overtime. Shawn Marion

provided more great defense, including a blocked shot on a

potential game-winner by Durant at the end of regulation. Jason

Terry also hit some big baskets in overtime.

Like everyone else on the Mavericks, those four veterans lack a

championship ring. All have come close, with Kidd losing in the

finals twice, Nowitzki and Terry losing the 2006 finals with Dallas

and Marion being on some top-notch Phoenix clubs that couldn’t get

past the conference finals.

”There’s a laser-like focus with this group to do whatever we

can to get the next win,” Carlisle said. ”It’s been a group

that’s believed in themselves all year long. We don’t quit. We

never give up. A lot of those qualities came into play last night.

… They know what it’s about for us. We’re trying to get somewhere

this franchise has never gotten. There’s a real resolve

there.”

Nowitzki embodies that resolve.

The big German was so good in the fourth quarter and overtime of

Game 4 that Magic Johnson brought up comparisons to Michael Jordan.

On Tuesday, Johnson tweeted, ”There is nobody playing better than

Dirk right now.”

Carlisle agrees, but more is needed.

”For him and for us, it’s not about grading a guy on where he

is astrologically in comparison with whatever,” Carlisle said.

”It’s being prepared to do whatever you have to do to get the next

win. The next win five times is what we’re looking at.”