May 25, 2024

Memory lane: The Thunder and Mavericks last met in the NBA playoffs in a spicy 2016 series

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks last met in the NBA playoffs back in 2016, the first round of what would be Kevin Durant’s final season with his first franchise.

That playoff run is most remembered in OKC for the seven-game conference finals collision with the 73-win Golden State Warriors, which included a 3-1 Thunder lead, the legendary Klay Thompson Game 6 and the ramifications that followed the Thunder’s elimination, leading to Durant’s departure.

The second-round series that preceded it also felt weighty. The Thunder beat a 67-win San Antonio Spurs team in six games, stealing home-court advantage after a controversial Dion Waiters elbow of Manu Ginobili from out of bounds. These were the final days of Tim Duncan’s career. A young Steven Adams, despite a pregame migraine headache, outplayed Duncan in the clincher.

But that first-round meetup with the Mavericks is 10 days of forgotten fun, if you prefer a series has some spice, even if it lacks elongated competitiveness.

The Thunder entered as significant favorites for an obvious reason: Durant and Russell Westbrook were 27, mid-prime and hungry. Dirk Nowitzki was 37, still the leading scorer on a six-seed, but no longer an All-Star and not surrounded by one. The four other Dallas starters in the series opener were Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews, Justin Anderson and Zaza Pachulia.

Game 1 went as expected. Durant and Westbrook combined for 69 points. They cruised. It set up as a yawner. But Game 2 jolted some life into the series, beginning about 45 seconds prior to tip.

Westbrook and Cameron Payne, then a rookie mostly out of the Thunder’s rotation, had turned their pregame handshake into a dance routine months prior. Dallas’ Charlie Villanueva, an 11-year veteran in his final season, decided to disrupt it. He walked into the middle of it and generated the first real tension of the series.

This appeared to be part of Dallas’ strategy to ratchet up the pressure and physicality. They brought it in Game 2, holding the Thunder to 84 points. Durant went 7-of-33 shooting. Those 26 misses remain the most Durant’s had in a single game in his entire career.

Regardless, the Thunder nearly won. For about 30 seconds, they did. After Felton missed a free throw with 7.1 seconds left and the Mavericks up 85-84, Durant and Westbrook pushed the ball in transition. Both had a chance for go-ahead shots at the rim. Both missed, but Adams tipped it in at the buzzer. It was initially ruled good, giving the Thunder a 2-0 series lead.

But officials reviewed it. The ball was still touching Adams’ fingertips at the buzzer. This is about as close as it gets.

After the game, Westbrook and Durant — who did combined news conferences at the time — were asked about Villanueva sending a message.

“Nah,” Durant said. “That’s fake s—.”

“Yeah. That’s fake,” Westbrook said. “That’s for the guys that don’t play. Gotta do something.”

The series moved three hours down the road to Dallas, and the Thunder responded with the requisite amount of physicality and focus to gain back control of the series. Oklahoma City blew Dallas out 131-102 in a Game 3 that included some mini scuffles.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle took particular offense to Durant elbowing backup center Salah Mejri at the free-throw line and turned his meet up with reporters between games to shine a spotlight on it.

Carlisle wasn’t done. He received a question from Berry Tramel, a long-time columnist from Oklahoma, and used it as a chance to spin his talking point in a creative way. Here is the back-and-forth.

Tramel: “When you first played them, they were sort of fresh-faced sweethearts. Now they got guys like Adams and (Serge) Ibaka — they get pretty dirty inside.”

Carlisle: “What’s your name again?”

Tramel: “Berry Tramel.”

Carlisle: “Berry Tramel from The Oklahoman? And you just said that…(the Thunder) are dirty and what?”

Tramel: “I said now they get down and dirty.”

Carlisle: “They get down and dirty? Just want to make sure you were on record as saying that — you cover the team every day?”

Tramel: “Not every day.”

Carlisle: “You said Adams and Ibaka are the two…”

Tramel: “… and Ibaka are the two — I mean, they got…”

Carlisle: “They’re initiators?”

Tramel: “Initiators is a good word. Instigators.”

Carlisle: “This is Berry Tramel from The Oklahoman, covers the team every day that’s saying this. How about anybody else on their team that does that?”

Tramel: “Probably everybody does it.”

Carlisle: “Everybody does it?”

Carlisle’s tactics didn’t change the series’ inevitable outcome. The Thunder beat the Mavericks by 11 in Game 4 and 14 in Game 5. Enes Freedom had a 28-point night off the OKC bench. Westbrook had 36 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in the clincher.

That last line was particularly notable considering the last batch of series drama. Mark Cuban, then the Mavericks’ majority owner, held court with a few Dallas reporters before Game 5. In a line of questioning about Nowitzki’s supporting cast, Cuban said the Thunder only had one superstar, referring to Durant. He was asked whether Westbrook qualified.

“I think he’s an All-Star but not a superstar,” Cuban said.

This comment made immediate headlines and became the postgame talking point after Westbrook torched the Mavericks and ended the series. Westbrook was asked about Cuban’s comment, but Durant, seated next to him again, put his hand in front of Westbrook’s microphone before he could answer.

“Hold up,” Durant said. “He’s an idiot. Don’t listen to shh … He’s an idiot. That’s what we got to say about that. He’s an idiot. Next question.”

Durant’s strong public backing of Westbrook, especially locally, added to the belief that Durant never intended to leave the Thunder or his current co-star.

The line of postgame questioning then turned to Villanueva, who got into it a bit verbally with Westbrook to close the series after interrupting his dance routine in Game 2.

“He said a lot,” Westbrook said. “He was there.”

“He’s an idiot, too,” Durant added.

“But now he get to go home and do whatever he needs to do to get ready for next year to sit down and watch 82 more games like he did this year,” Westbrook said.

The Mavericks faded from immediate relevance. They missed the playoffs the next three seasons, but scooped up Luka Dončić to jump-start a quick rebuild. By the time they returned to the playoffs, the Thunder’s first great era had whittled, but they hit the eject button in time to get Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the draft picks to quickly build back up a contender.

So now the two franchises, separated by 206 miles, meet again in the playoffs eight years later. The rosters are entirely different, but the two teams have a chance to juice back up a rivalry that had some life when teams led by Nowitzki and Durant met up three times in a five-playoff stretch last decade.

(Top photo: Wesley Hitt / Getty Images)