'The Mavs have 'a heart of a champion,' says Kevin Durant. 'Dallas is a championship-level team, no matter what their record is.' Ah, but OKC is a championship-level team and has the record to prove it. The Thunder downed the Mavs in a Friday night thriller, a 117-114 decision in yet another OT game, this time Durant as the tone-setter with 52 points.
This marks the Dallas Mavericks' second OT loss to the Thunder this season. Such disappointments are piling up for the Mavs; as hot as they've been lately, coming into this one on a four-game winning streak, they are 1-8 in overtime games this season.
Meanwhile, OKC is now a Western Conference-best 32-8 on the season, has six straight wins, and is 4-0 in OT.
So yes, the Mavs showed the heart of the champion this franchise was in 2011. But the Thunder continues to demonstrate the heart of a potential champion -- and the won-loss record of one, too.
The win was keyed by Durant's career-high 52 points, a performance so amazing that it greatly overshadowed the work of teammate Russell Westbrook (31 points).
Durant, said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, "is the best offensive player on the planet. I don't think there's any question about that."
This was a mutual admiration society for some of the principals of a rivalry that for the last two seasons has produced the best team in the West. Durant returned the Carlisle compliment, saying, "Their coach is unbelievable. He does so many good things with those guys."
The root of Durant's praise: Dallas' ability to rebound from a pair of 14-point deficits plus a dazzling end-of-regulation play drawn up by the coach and executed to perfection by the Mavs. The result was an O.J. Mayo three-pointer that sent the game to the extra period.
Dallas had another chance to tie the game at the end of the overtime period but the execution that time around was poor. The ball never reached Dirk Nowitzki or Mayo or Vince Carter (29 points) but instead remained in the hands of backup point guard Mike James. Fresh off signing his second 10-day contract, the 37-year-old James couldn't find a receiver -- maybe the Mavs got into their play too late into the clock -- and James was left having to launch an ill-fated shot from three feet beyond the arc.
"I made the wrong decision,'' said James, pegged by Carlisle to serve as the point guard closer instead of starter Darren Collison. "I didn't do my job.''
James wasn't alone in shouldering blame for a loss that at least temporarily slows the climb up the standings of the 17-24 Mavs. The team's feelings about that climb are tangible; as Dirk said, "I think we've improved tremendously, but we've got another gear to go to."
And yet the same could be said for Dirk himself as he continues to play his way into form following knee surgery. Nowitzki struggled through the game, missing 10 of his first 11 shots from the floor and finishing with 18 points on 4-of-18 shooting. He also missed a free throw in the final minute, costing Dallas a chance to take the lead.
"It's rough,'' Carlisle said. "A rough way to lose.''
Rough, even though Dallas played like a franchise that remembered its pedigree and even though Dallas was playing against a team that now has the finest pedigree in the conference.