First Impressions: Rivalry? OKC 95, Mavs 91
New rivalries are sold based on potential, advertised by the names on the back of the jerseys. However, they are built in the playoffs, created once both sides have tasted the bitterness of defeat on the game's biggest stage. A rivalry can spawn in a instant, should there come a moment grand enough birth a lingering bitterness, a prolonged need – not just a desire, a genuine need – to see that specific opponent fall.
Even if you respect a true rival, you hate them. You revel in seeing on-court misery cast their way, while at the same time hoping they somehow manage to find their way to the opposing bench when the largest stakes arrive once more. Seeing them lose is sweet, but nothing compared to watching your team feed it to them.
Are we there yet?
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle followed his team's 95-91 loss at Oklahoma City on Monday by claiming that his team "should've won the game'' and adding that his boys were "deserving of a better outcome."
That's not how they saw it across the hall.
"We gutted this one out, man," said Kevin Durant from the winning locker room, where the Thunder celebrated their 13th straight home victory.
And maybe that's the spawning.
When Dirk Nowitzki erased a late deficit by hitting four consecutive 3-pointers on his way to a game-high 27, Thunder fans had to have sighed, "Not again." And when James Harden responded with 14 fourth-quarter points to seal the win for the Thunder, Mavs fans had to feel that surge of anger. And was it truly the spike of emotion that can only be found in the wake of a true rivalry?
The Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks aren't quite there yet, but they are well on their way. Cast at vastly different stages of their team arc, one fighting to carve their name in the stone halls of league history, the other having tasted the air at the peak of the mountain after having become entrenched among the NBA's elite after winning at least 50 games for 11 straight seasons; this battle is granted significance more by the standings than team names adorning the front of the jerseys.
Their meeting in the Western Conference Finals a season ago set a course in motion, planted the seeds that could grow into a forest of disdain, a crop that could eventually feed that "need" to see them vanquished, fallen at the hand of your team, but until the Thunder take a win of true significance from the Mavs, until they deny Dallas fans what they feel their team has come to earn with the finality of a season concluding loss, this is only a fledgling … a rivalry in its infancy.
Drawing in on this matchup, Shawn Marion continued his defensive brilliance, though the Mavs often relied on a zone in an attempt to limit the penetrating abilities of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. To an extent, this approach was effective. As a pair, Durant and Westbrook hit only 12 of their 38 shot attempts (31.8 percent).
As a team, OKC's 38 percent shooting is only the fourth time they've been held under 40. And their point total is seven shy of the usual.
If not for the dominance of Harden in the final period, where he was 3-of-3 from the floor and 7-of-7 from the line – and perhaps a call here or there – the outcome of this game is likely altered. Westbrook and Durant did not condemn Dallas to a loss. That's a positive.
In direct contrast to Harden's performance in the games most impactful moments was that of Jason Terry, who pounded the ball into the court seemingly unaware of the time on the clock in several key moments. At the end of the third quarter, he essentially dribbled the clock out for the Thunder, leaving the Mavs without a chance to take the final shot despite the fact that they took possession with 10 seconds left in the quarter.
In the game's final 46.3 seconds, he repeated this mistake twice more, though with slightly different results … meaning, there was at least a shot attempt, a poor one. On the second-to-last possession, Terry was too casual in getting the play underway, and after a Thunder defender tipped a pass, was again slow to attack, leaving him the sole option of a contested-fadeaway jumper.
When Dallas had one more chance, down only three after Durant split a pair of free throws with 13.9 seconds remaining, Terry failed to get the Mavs best player a touch. Instead, driving to the baseline, missing a wide-open Kidd in the paint, and a momentarily open Dirk, before delivering an extremely late pass to Kidd, who was essentially out of bounds … leaving Kidd no choice but to immediately pass the ball back to Terry, who again took a contested jumper and missed.
"We haven't really been sharp on our execution at the end of ballgames and that's hurt us," said Terry, who scored nine of his 18 points in the fourth quarter. "Not a big concern because I know the type of team we are. We thrive in those situations. … We've got to just keep clawing it out. Eventually it will swing our way and we'll pull these games out, but it's been a thorn in our side the entire season."
Added up, the Mavs scored zero points in the last 2:46 of this game and were outscored 8-0 down the stretch.
The roles of last season's playoffs were reversed. The wily veteran Mavs failed to execute in the game's closing moments (and added to the bad side of the ledger in those five-point games), while the Thunder did what they had to in order to win.
Rick Carlisle, like many Mavs fans, was extremely unhappy with the whistle that sent Serge Ibaka to the line with 46.2 seconds left, where he would hit both free throws and put the Thunder up for good. It was a questionable call at best, a bailout, and a bad break for Ian Mahinmi, who fouled out on the play and took his surprising 13-point effort to the bench. Mahimni was playing in place of Brendan Haywood, who sprained an ankle early, and Dallas was already without the other center, Brandan Wright, due to a concussion.
Dallas needed relief at center. Mahinmi gave them some, and then …
"I'm in disbelief that there was a foul called on Mahinmi,'' Carlisle said. "It was an enormous play … I just watched the play five times (on video). It's a block."
And in a contest that saw OKC attempt 33 free throws compared to only 10 for Dallas, including a 15-2 Thunder advantage in the fourth period, that block/non-block has Dallas fans (and some of the guys in the Mavs' room, too) feeling this was but one more in a string of one-sided whistles.
"I'm at a loss,'' said Carlisle, and no pun was intended.
Oklahoma City has finished the season series, winning three of four with two of those victories coming in the final seconds. Perhaps another step has been taken in the construction of a true rivalry, but these wins ring hollow in the regular season. The anger aroused by the officiating may urge it onward, but until these battles continue in the realm of the playoffs, the rivalry is real but awaiting true arrival, true sports hate.
We're waiting. But it's coming.