OKLAHOMA CITY—Kevin Durant, meet Harold Camping.
And Dallas Mavericks, reintroduce yourselves to the NBA Finals.
Camping is an 89-year-old scam artist, a religious zealot with a troubling propensity for predicting the end of the world and then living to tell about it. Durant is a 22-year-old NBA superstar, the league's two-time scoring leader who packs refreshing manners and boundless talent inside his geeky post-game backpack.
Both learned a hard lesson this week: In the end, wisdom wins.
Camping's latest—his second, if you're keeping score—ridiculously wrong doomsday prediction came and went May 21. Despite naive followers donating $18 million to help spread Camping's word of the impending Rapture, last Saturday proceeded without anything more than an Icelandic volcano erupting and the usual array of spring storms across America's heartland. Camping was wrong. His response? Um, I meant October 21. Believe him at your own peril.
Same for Durant, who late in the fourth quarter of the NBA's Western Conference Finals Game 4 also transformed into a false prophet destined to disappoint thousands of followers. Taking a pass at the top of the key, Durant swished a 3-pointer that gave the Oklahoma City Thunder a seemingly invincible 99-84 lead over the reeling Mavericks with only 5:06 remaining. Upon his handiwork, he preened. He posed. He taunted. He performed "the belt," gesturing as though he were a champion boxer clasping the title hardware around his mid-section.
Think of it as a politically correct version of the throat slash.
But think twice before directing it at Dirk Nowitzki and the battle-scarred Mavericks.
While Durant was over-celebrating and the rabid Oklahoma City sellout crowd was engaged in premature exultation, a funny thing happened on the way to a blowout and a 2-2 series. The Mavericks—known in the past and even in these playoffs as notorious chokers—refused to play the part of piñata at OKC's fiesta.
Like Camping, the Thunder naively quit working. For all their youthful enthusiasm and immense athleticism, the Thunder haven't even begun to learn how to finish.
The Mavericks figured that out long ago. And they have the scars to prove it.
In 2006 they led the Miami Heat 2-0 in the NBA Finals and by 13 points in Game 3 with 6:13 remaining. And just last month—April 23, as if you'd forgotten—they led the Portland Trail Blazers by 23 points in the third quarter of Game 4 in the playoff's first round. Because they let up, because they prematurely partied and because they got giddy when they should've been grinding, they lost a title five years ago and some respect five weeks ago.
But what occurred on Monday night in OKC was as scintillating as it was shocking. Instead of shrinking, the Mavericks turned stubborn. The result was a combination of the Thunder's inexperience leading to an epic meltdown and the Mavs' war wounds fueling a riveting Red River Rally, the greatest playoff comeback in franchise history.
Mavs 112, Thunder 105 not only gave the Mavericks a commanding 3-1 series lead entering Wednesday night's Game 5 at American Airlines Center, it rolled out the red carpet for their first return to the NBA Finals since you know when and the loss against you know who. The Mavericks bounced back from their Portland pratfall and won the series. They then stunned NBA experts by sweeping the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. And now, whether it's in Game 5, 6 or 7—and, yes, I'm tempting fate and flaunting it in the face of Camping and Durant—the Mavericks will vanquish the Thunder in the West Finals.
Count on this prediction: Either next Tuesday, May 31, or next Thursday, June 2, the Mavericks will open the NBA Finals in Chicago or Miami.
And rest assured that the Game 4 rally just up Interstate 35 has already secured its spot among the best, most memorable games in Mavs history. Yep, this one may have been even more miraculous than the famed "Moody Madness" in 1984, when the Mavs rallied from six points down with two minutes remaining to win a clinching Game 5 against the heavily favored Seattle Supersonics in a cramped SMU gym.
But exactly how did Dallas steal OKC's Thunder?
"At that point, down by that much, we pretty much had to play perfect," Nowitzki said afterward. "And we did."
The colossal comeback wouldn't have been possible if not for a big assist by the Thunder. After running and gunning and simply playing faster and better than Dallas for 43 minutes, Oklahoma City became tentative. Inexplicably, they started playing not to lose. Their possessions—hurried and horrible in a Game 3 Dallas win—became as slow and messy as tile caulk oozing from a tube. OKC's plays were nothing but isolations, a bevy of bad one-on-one moves by Durant or enigmatic teammate Russell Westbrook. The two combined for 48 points but also 15 turnovers including an almost unfathomable nine by Durant.
While the Thunder cratered, the Mavericks fed the Flamingo Fadeaway, an off-balance, one-legged shot by Nowitzki that in this postseason has become as impossible to defend as it is difficult to describe. In the final five minutes of regulation, Nowitzki outscored the Thunder all by himself, 12-2.
Included in that performance was a 3-pointer, two boom-or-bust jumpers and a pair of calm free throws that tied the game with six seconds remaining. In the extra period the game was tied at 105 when the older, wiser Mavs got a finishing dose of savvy from 38-year-old point guard Jason Kidd. Guarding Durant—taller, more athletic and 16 years younger—he jostled the ball free on a drive, setting up Shawn Marion for a steal. At the other end, contrary to OKC's chaos, the Mavs slowly, systematically orchestrated a play they've run a zillion times—Nowitzki with the ball at the elbow of the lane.
With Nowitzki aggressively driving around defender Nick Collison toward the basket, Westbrook was forced to help stop him, leaving Kidd open in the right corner. Despite being in the midst of a 40-point night that gave him two 40-plus-point performances in the series, Dirk deferred. Kidd pump-faked, sending a scrambling Westbrook flying past him into the seats and leaving an open view of a 3-pointer. After making sure his feet were behind the line, Kidd swished the shot for a 108-105 lead.
Game. Set. Series.
The Mavericks closed the game on a 28-6 run and, in the process, delivered a swift kick to OKC's crotch. Seemingly on the brink of another first-round exit after their Game 4 loss in Portland, Dallas is 9-1 in their last 10 playoff games and 11-3 this postseason. The best part? They're just getting started.
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We've had disappointments in this town and some of our deepest sports wounds may never heal. Dwight Clark's "The Catch." Jackie Smith's Super Bowl drop. The Rangers flopping against the Giants. The Mavericks blowing the '06 lead to Dwyane Wade.
But suddenly it's a pretty juicy eight-month run. In November the Rangers were in their first World Series. In February we hosted our first Super Bowl, XLV. And next week, with those battle scars not only healed but now dangling a captivating carrot, the Mavericks return to their second NBA Finals.
Summer's around the corner and, if destiny gives a damn, Miami is in our travel plans. In both cases, bring on the Heat.
Even Camping can get excited about that forecast.