Originally Published: May 6, 2012

1. Thunderous Performance Impresses Mavs

By Marc Stein

DALLAS -- For the fourth time in these playoffs, Dirk Nowitzki clambered onto the dais, dislodged the microphone from its stand and draped his left arm over an adjacent chair as he took questions about the multitude of problems caused by the Oklahoma City Thunder.

For the last time, too.

Four looks at Nowitzki's signature routine at the postgame podium are all you're getting this postseason, amazingly, after the Thunder ran the same pick-and-roll play an astounding 16 times in Saturday night's fourth quarter to broom the defenseless defending champs right out of the first round.

The NBA's last team standing in 2011 became the first team eliminated in 2012 when Thunder coach Scotty Brooks, having lost Kendrick Perkins early and facing a 13-point deficit late, simply handed the ball to James Harden and watched him dice up Dallas repeatedly on a play called "Angle."

[+] EnlargeDirk Nowitzki
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

With Harden rumbling for 15 of his 29 points in that final period and Nowitzki's limited Mavericks fading at the finish, OKC surged from that double-digit hole to claim a 103-97 victory at American Airlines Center and seal the first-ever sweep of a Dirk-led team.

"If you look at the team we just lost to, it was [Russell] Westbrook in Game 1 and Game 2, it was Durant [in Game 3], and today they just throw it to Harden and he goes off," Nowitzki said.

"If you want to be an elite team in this league right now, you have to have at least two or three guys that can just go off at any time. I just thought they had more weapons than us. That was pretty clear."

That's apparently not all the maturing Thunder have, either.

"The thing that impressed me most about them is that they have a certain look in their eye right now," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "Not just that they belong, but that this could be their time. They came at us like a buzzsaw in the fourth quarter."

It's a gleam that Carlisle knows and remembers well. The Mavs had it this time last year and used that edge, along with their considerable experience and hunger, to boss the Thunder in the Western Conference finals in another deceptively short series, filled with close games like this one.

That, though, was last season, which is yet another distinction Carlisle can point out as well as anyone. Jason Kidd (16 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in the finale of his first season without a single triple-double) and Nowitzki (34 points) stubbornly tried to drag Dallas to a Game 5 in Oklahoma City on Monday night, if only for pride, but ultimately they couldn't prevent a hasty end to one of the most bizarre, conflicted and ultimately disappointing title defenses in the history of North American team sports.

Of its key personnel, apart from bargain signing Brandan Wright, Nowitzki and Kidd are the only two Mavericks who know for sure that they're welcome back in 2012-13. That even applies to Carlisle, whose original four-year contract expires in June and whose status as one of just three active coaches to have won a championship (alongside San Antonio's Gregg Popovich and Boston's Doc Rivers) has not yet moved Mavs owner Mark Cuban to offer him a contract extension.

Yet those are the unusual circumstances that everyone in Big D at least recognized going in, if not accepted, when the lockout ended in December and culture-changing center Tyson Chandler was sign-and-traded to New York, with the intent of setting the Mavs up with significant salary-cap space for the first time in Cuban's reign. And Cuban, to the end, continued to tell anyone who would listen that this group might have been able to contend as constructed if his gamble on Lamar Odom -- who was supposed to be Dallas' answer to a wild card like Harden for a season -- hadn't failed so miserably.

No matter how many folks out there actually bought that management's primary objective this season was anything other than winning the offseason, what can't be disputed is the fact that the future has arrived faster than any Mav ever imagined. After holding a fourth-quarter lead in the final minute of all four of its road games this season in OKC, Dallas never expected to get swept by the Thunder, no matter who it had on the floor. And Nowitzki openly struggled to process the swiftness of the exit, insisting from the interview podium that he couldn't yet fathom the idea that title-team stalwarts such as Jason Terry and Shawn Marion might have made their final appearances in Mavs colors on Cinco de Mayo, despite the widespread presumptions that Dallas plans to clean house and clear as much salary-cap space as possible in July to try to steal North Texas' own Deron Williams away from the Brooklyn Nets.

"The end kind of snuck up on us now," Nowitzki said.

Carlisle tried to sound an optimistic note, comparing Chandler's departure to Steve Nash's in 2004: "I remember when Nash left, everyone thought this thing was over. But Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban, they have a resourcefulness about them."

The reality, though, is that, to use the local parlance, Dallas has seen the goalposts move since letting Chandler go. Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com this week that the Mavs were convinced early on in their 2012 planning that having sufficient cap space to be able to legitimately recruit Dwight Howard alongside Williams was the surest route to landing Williams. The problem there, of course, is Howard's unexpected decision in March to delay his free agency until the summer of 2013 has left Williams solo on the Mavs' list of "big fish" -- to use a term both Nelson and Nowitzki have mentioned to local reporters -- while they remain well shy of possessing the requisite trade assets to offer Orlando for Dwight via trade.

It's some predicament. And it naturally doesn't take a great leap from there to start asking yourself if a frontcourt duo of Nowitzki and Chandler, had Dallas independently elected to spend what it took to keep them together, might have appealed to D-Will more than any other potential tandem of teammates he's offered this summer now that hooking up with Howard is no longer feasible.

We just don't know yet.

What we do know: The mind is sure to wander with nearly two months still to go before the Mavs start finding out if dissolving their championship roster pays off.

I've believed from the start that Cuban, after delivering Dallas its first NBA crown and spending millions in luxury tax over his decade-plus in charge to get there, has more than earned the right to try to reload around Nowitzki any new way he sees fit. Yet the resulting risk is that Dallas might have no fish of consequence to pursue if Williams chooses to stay with the Nets, who can offer one more season contractually than the Mavs along with added marketing opportunities because of their new Brooklyn address.

One source well-acquainted with Williams' thinking told ESPN.com this weekend that the Mavericks, in their current state, have no better than a "50-50 shot" of getting D-Will's signature in July ... despite the fact that the Nets aren't any closer to landing Howard than they are.

"We never had cap space [before]," Nowitzki said. "So they made the decision to go for that and we'll just have to wait and see what comes out of that. We have no idea now. We don't know what's going to happen in the summer or the summer after that. We'll just have to kind of wait and see who can we get, who's available and who wants to come here. That's going to be something we're going to see in the future. We can't make a judgment on that now."

Not unless we bring the conversation back to Thunder.

It's not like they're not without their own dramas. They'll need Perkins' strained right hip to heal during this suddenly convenient wait for a winner in the Denver-L.A. Lakers series. And as Carlisle said of Brooks' own expiring contract and Thunder general manager Sam Presti: "I hope Sam's got enough money to sign him, because he's going to be in high demand if they don't get that done."

But when you sweep the defending champs, you force the professional second-guessers to stay focused on what's happening on the floor, starting with the 35-16 finishing kick in the fourth quarter that closed the Mavs out.

Which only adds to the perception that one year of experience has made a huge difference for OKC.

"Their role players look great," Nowitzki said. "They have defenders and shot-makers and playmakers and a great shot-blocker [in Serge Ibaka].

"They look really good."

The reigning NBA Finals MVP would know, right?

Dimes past: April 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 28 | 29 | 30 | May 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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