Times Are Changing How the Thunder-Mavericks series is a tale of two teams headed in very different directions.

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The only place where Oklahoma City and Dallas’ age difference shows more than on the basketball court is in the locker room.

Prior to game three, the Thunder locker room is extremely loose and lively. Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha share laughs as some of the team’s younger players watch game two on a projector, pointing out some high flying plays by the team’s stars. Eric Maynor, OKC’s backup point guard who tore his ACL nine games into the season, plays a card game on his iPad as Russell Westbrook watches from one locker over, laughing at his virtual misfortune. James Harden’s face is beaming with a smile as he gets asked countless questions about being invited to Team USA training camp this summer just hours before the game. The only player in the room that didn’t have a grin on his face was Kevin Durant.

Durant, the NBA’s scoring champion and a shoe-in for a top two finish in MVP voting, is coming off of two poor shooting nights in the first two games of the series. Even though the Thunder prevailed in both games, Durant is trying to focus himself for a third battle with Dallas’ elite perimeter defender Shawn Marion. Durant’s head is down, his eyes open as he stares at the floor, bumping his head to beats that can be heard from 10 feet away. Once Durant realized the media was waiting to speak to him, he took off his headphones, making the previously compressed sound audible to his teammates. Westbrook criticized his choice in pre-game pump up music before Kendrick Perkins took a jab at the UCLA product’s “west coast” musical taste.

The Mavericks’ locker room is quiet. The plethora of veterans don’t have time for iPad games or joking around. The feeling in the air is one of anxiety. Dallas knows what they need to do to win, but they simply haven’t found a way to execute it. And sometimes, knowing the material and still failing the test can feel much worse than breaking down in confusion. Failing the test with the answers at hand has signified a weakness on the Mavericks’ part, one that they may not be able to fix with a change in X’s and O’s or a new defensive scheme. The Mavs are playing the same game they did last season when they eliminated the Thunder in five Western Conference Finals games, but their pieces have eroded this year while Oklahoma City’s have evolved from rooks to killers.

Ian Mahinmi chats with an assistant coach about defensive rotations. Delonte West buries his head in his locker, where he’s slumped over an iPad with streaming video of his defensive assignments. Jason Terry gets in a pre-game game workout in the Mavs weight room next to Mark Cuban, who watches the Knicks-Heat game while using a stair climber, refusing to speak formally to the media. Dirk enters the locker room with a solemn look on his face, one that was commonly referred to as a look of determination last year, but now it could easily be construed as one of concern. The biggest key for the Mavericks is stopping Oklahoma City’s 1-2 punch of Durant and Westbrook, a tandem that has yet to play well in unison despite the Thunder’s 2-0 lead. West tells me the Mavericks aren’t adjusting their pick-and-roll coverage too much, noting that if Westbrook’s mid-range jumper is on they have few answers anyway. Dallas’ scouting report says to force Durant to his right hand when he isolates, and Marion seems prepared to execute it once again.

Oklahoma City’s young legs race out to a fast start, one that sets the tone for the entire game. Kevin Durant gets free from Marion twice on the Thunder’s first few possessions, freeing him up for some wide open three-point looks that both went down. Those makes are undoubtedly a huge boost in confidence for Durant, who was 3-for-12 in the first two games of the series. Next, Westbrook utilizes his tremendous speed advantage, getting anywhere on the floor that he wants to go after turning the corner on pick-and-rolls. Just five minutes in, after getting called for a questionable loose ball foul while going up for a rebound, Nowitzki gets on the ref and receives a technical.

Three minutes later, as Oklahoma City’s lead continued to grow, Perkins tips home a missed lay-up by Harden, but seems to have touched the ball when it was in the cylinder. An irate Rick Carlisle uncharacteristically lashes out and gets another technical. All of a sudden, the veteran team and defending NBA champions are losing their cool while the young Thunder calmly execute their offense and continue to get their best players good looks.

After being down as much as 15, a late first quarter run from Terry, Jason Kidd and Vince Carter get the Mavs back within six at the end of the period. All things considered, a 26-point output for the first quarter wasn’t all that bad for the Mavericks, and their late push made it seem like they were on the verge of making it a contest. Unfortunately for Dallas, they wouldn’t score more than 22 points in any of the remaining three quarters, including just 31 points in the second and third periods combined.

Durant and Westbrook take turns knocking down huge shots in the third quarter, which is where the game was decided. A 16-5 run in the third puts the Thunder up 16 and that’s when the Mavericks stopped making their runs. Once Oklahoma City’s lead ballooned to 26 in the fourth quarter, guys like Yi Jianlian, Brian Cardinal and Kelenna Azubuike are on the floor for Dallas while the Thunder stars sit comfortably on the bench. Carlisle had waved the white flag and Dirk and JET, two players coming off of a remarkable run in the 2011 NBA Playoffs that landed them a title, sit on the bench with looks of extreme disappointment and walk off the floor as the buzzer sounds appearing dejected.

ibakaDurant played his best game of the series on this night, dropping 31 points on incredibly efficient 11-of-15 shooting (4-of-6 from three) while racking up six assists to just one turnover, and Westbrook contributed when he needed to, especially by continuing to put pressure on the Mavs via the pick-and-roll. By contrast, Nowitzki had his worst game of the series, shooting just six-of-15 from the field and getting to the free throw line just eight times (and he missed three freebies). The Thunder were fighting Dirk from the opening tip, bumping him off of his spots and forcing him into some really tough looks, even by his standards. On the other hand, Durant was free to roam wherever he wanted to off of the ball as Dallas’ defense didn’t bring the same amount of intensity that they did in games one and two, which was surely a byproduct of failing to pick up a win despite their tremendous efforts in those games.

“Our goal was to come out swinging, create energy and get the building going,” Nowitzki said. “It wasn’t the way we wanted to start the game. Give them credit. They threw a heck of a game at us. We picked a bad time to put a stinker out there.”

The Mavericks tried to throw the first punch in last night’s game, but they came up empty. Sure, the Mavericks’ performance in game three should not be viewed as something that represents the quality of their team. Their shots were off all game long and their defensive effort was uncharacteristic of what they had shown just 48 hours prior. But as Dirk noted, the timing of these shortcomings does reflect poorly on the Mavericks, and it’d be foolish to write this win off as an off night for Dallas and neglect Oklahoma City’s role in this. Dallas didn’t just miss shots. They missed shots that the Thunder were seemingly content to give them. Shawn Marion and Jason Kidd were left free to fire as the Thunder focused on sticking to Nowitzki and Terry, a game plan that worked as Marion and Kidd combined to shoot 5-for-20 from the field and 2-for-9 from beyond the arc. Without that third option to take pressure off of Dirk and Terry, the Mavericks’ offense came to a screeching halt.

Even with an off night from the soon to be Sixth Man of the Year James Harden, the Thunder won comfortably (95-79) thanks to their budding young superstar Kevin Durant. Durant and Nowitzki have traded off nights in this series, with Durant struggling in Oklahoma City before busting out in Dallas last night and Dirk playing well on the road before putting up a “stinker” at home. It’s unfortunate that we haven’t gotten to see these two prolific and historically good shooters duel each other, because by the way things look, they may only have one more shot to do it.

As Dirk sits down for his post-game press conference, he grabs the microphone, slumps back in his chair and awaits the first question. His eyes darting down at the table in front of him while his mind seems transfixed on what had just transpired. Nowitzki’s demeanor hasn’t changed a bit since he took the microphone a year ago and talked about what the Mavs did right en route to beating the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals. Provide a different context, though, and you see a man on the brink of elimination rather than the brink of history. Carlisle, who has been very open with his feelings during his press conferences in this series, is rather frank with his observations.

“I thought even though we played bad, that we competed well,” Carlisle said.

The difference in this game was that the energy Dallas brought wasn’t natural. Rather, the Mavericks started to force things once the Thunder began building a lead. That’s not totally uncommon in the NBA, but for the defending champs to start pressing when down 15 to a team they’ve made a habit of coming back on was surprising, especially considering Dallas didn’t start the game off with much energy. The Mavericks were down several times to the Thunder last year, often big, but they let the game come to them and continuously finished them off in the fourth quarter. Things were different this time around. The Thunder refused to take Dallas lightly, keeping their foot on the gas pedal for all four quarters, making Dallas’ spirited effort moot.

The Mavs’ locker room has only grown more somber. As the players get dressed for the drive home and fulfill their media obligations, heads hang and questions bring back sour memories from just minutes ago. This looks like a team that knows they’ve dug themselves a hole that no NBA team has ever climbed out of.

Across the hall, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook prepare to do their usual joint press conference. Westbrook arrives to his locker before Durant and begins to get ready. By the time Durant begins to get dressed Westbrook has already put on his suit and tie, an outfit he took pride in putting together himself. Once Durant sees the glasses Westbrook has chosen to top of his get up (I doubt these were prescribed), he begins to pick on the look. After some fashion banter, Durant playfully says to Westbrook: “I never liked you anyways.”

Next up for criticism is Westbrook’s suit, which has been buttoned so many times that it has restricted his movement.

“Don’t ask me to bend down because I can’t do it,” Westbrook says.

Once Westbrook and Durant head out, the locker room is nearly empty. The last three players to leave for the team bus are Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins and Derek Fisher. Not surprisingly, those are the most veteran players on the team that played serious minutes in the game. Perkins and Fisher sit down at their lockers at the same time. Just two seasons ago these two fought for opposing sides in latest Finals chapter in the most storied rivalry in basketball history. Now their lockers are separated by no more than a foot.

After watching such a young Thunder team come out so confidently and perform so well in a big game, it was tough not to turn to Fisher for perspective on what Oklahoma City had accomplished.

“We have a young basketball team from an age standpoint, but these guys are as humble and hungry and passionate about being successful as any group that I’ve been with,” Fisher, a five-time NBA champion, said. “They all just want to succeed and they want the next guy to succeed. This is a special group.”

Earlier in the night, Thunder coach Scott Brooks would say that he has a young basketball team that doesn’t play like the 22 and 23 year olds that they are, but that occasionally act that way off the court.

That’s the beauty of this Thunder team. There seems to be a preconceived notion in sports that painstaking losses are the prerequisite to winning. Or that nothing should come too easy or too soon for professional athletes. But after two straight trips to the post-season with increasing degrees of success, the Thunder are tired of just racking up frequent flyer miles until they can reach their Finals destination. They’re ready to win it now, and they enjoy doing it together.

“This team definitely has what it takes from a physical standpoint in terms of our personnel,” Fisher said. “We’ll find out where we are mentally and how badly we want to maximize our potential.”

Based on their play against the defending NBA Champions, we won’t be waiting long until we find out just how badly Durant, Westbrook, Harden and the rest of the Thunder want to maximize their potential.

And if they want it bad enough, the wait before we start calling the Thunder a dynasty won’t be long, either.

(This column was originally written for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. It is republished here my personal archives. If you wish to share this article, please use this link.)

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