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THEY HAD ALREADY DISPATCHED THE TEAM THAT MANY HAD thought would upset them in the first round of the playoffs and swept away the defending champions in the second, but it wasn't until the Western Conference finals that the Mavericks began to take on the calm, self-assured air of champions. Specifically, it was in Game 4 of the series against Oklahoma City, when the young, frisky Thunder held a 15-point lead with 5:06 to go and appeared to be on the verge of tying the series 2--2.
If the Mavs, who had lost only twice while sending the Blazers and the Lakers home for the summer, had let the Thunder finish the job, who knows where the series might have gone? Youth and confidence are a dangerous combination. Oklahoma City's players will forever wonder about what might have been, just as they will always remember the night that Dallas showed them, as Jason Terry would say afterward, that "five minutes is a long time." It was long enough for the Mavs to show that much more than ticks on a clock separated them from Oklahoma City: Years of playoff success and failure helped the Mavericks coolly mount a comeback, while the youthful Thunder seemed to panic.
Down 99--84, Dallas closed regulation with a 17--2 run that sent the game into overtime. The rally was filled with savvy moves by the Mavs, who got to the free throw line repeatedly. Dirk Nowitzki sank buckets that only superstars make, including a wrong-foot, off-balance fallaway with Nick Collison draped all over him.
The Thunder, meanwhile, played with the hurried desperation of a team trying to outrun an oncoming wave. When Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant rushed the final shot of regulation from well beyond the three-point arc only to have it blocked by Shawn Marion, overtime seemed like a formality, and it was. Dallas outscored the Thunder 11--4 in the extra period, which was highlighted by Jason Kidd's stripping the ball from Durant and hitting a three-pointer at the other end. The series was now in the Mavs' back pocket at 3--1.
Even with some work ahead of them, the Mavericks grasped the significance of what they'd done. "There are times and situations that test the courage and mental strength of your team," Terry said. "This was the defining moment in our season, where we'll look back and say, Hey, that was the game."
Although Nowitzki finished with 40 points, the 38-year-old Kidd, who had 17 points, seven assists and four steals, made as many key plays down the stretch as anyone. "Everybody asks questions about the age and all that other stuff," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said, referring to his distinguished point guard. "The thing I'd say to anybody is, Never underestimate greatness."
Never underestimate the value of experience, either. The Mavs, who clinched the series with a 100--96 win in Game 5, have learned from previous playoff disappointments. One day perhaps the Thunder will draw on the painful education they received. Now Dallas would go to the Finals and face the Heat—and teach a few more lessons.