The Oklahoma City Thunder spent much of the 2011-12 season looking like the Western Conference's likely NBA Finals representative before a late-season swoon left them looking up at the San Antonio Spurs. After the way OKC finished sweeping the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday, though, the Thunder are on the rise once more.
Oklahoma City got a career playoff-high 29 points from James Harden in its 103-97 Game 4 victory over the Mavericks. In a series in which three games were decided by a grand total of nine points and the Thunder still seemed dominant. Dallas got 34 points from Dirk Nowitzki in the loss, but had no answer for Harden, and never seemed able to defend him, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook simultaneously. That terrifying triumvirate of young, impossibly athletic scorers served as the hydra that snapped at and tore apart a Mavericks team that was at best a shell of the championship outfit of 2011, and the Thunder will move on with momentum because of it.
Yet the Spurs don't look any less the favorite, and didn't falter on Saturday, using their legerdemain and depth to outclass a Jazz team that hung with them for a half in the 102-90 Game 2. Tony Parker's 27 points led all scorers, and Tim Duncan's 17 and six (...and three assists, and three blocks, and a steal) and Manu Ginobili's six-point, 10-assist, five-rebound night demonstrated the versatility that one of the league's oft-overlooked "Big Three" crews have made into their trademark. But it was the way San Antonio absorbed Utah's effort and snuck into the lead at the half, only to hold the Jazz to 40 points in the second while Parker went off, that showed that the Spurs are not only well beyond Utah's weight class, but likely the class of the West. No other team has three double-digit wins in the conference, and San Antonio's 31-point margin of victory in Game 2 was more than the Thunder's composite margin of victory against Dallas.
The Los Angeles Clippers would be sizable underdogs against either of those teams, bereft of shooters and green inside as they are, but they have taken two of three from the Memphis Grizzlies in a bizarre series that could have seen either team win each game. Saturday's 87-86 L.A. win was engineered by Chris Paul (24 points, 11 assists), the crunch-time assassin who spearheaded a late 11-1 run. Being the Clippers, though, means being within inches of the guillotine at any moment, and Rudy Gay (24 points) missing a game-winner made possible by a flurry of missed Clippers free throws after sinking two late threes gave L.A. the space to wriggle to a 2-1 series lead. Game 4 is in Los Angeles, and Paul's troop can take a commanding lead with a victory in it.
In the East, the mid-card matchup of the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic seems to be lurching to its end after Indiana's 101-99 overtime win in Game 4. The Pacers are up 3-1 on Orlando, Dwight Howard-less and reduced to the sort of patchwork roster that Magic fans remember from immediately before and after Tracy McGrady's occupation of the City Beautiful — Glen Davis is the Magic's best player, perhaps — but have not looked overwhelming against that outfit.
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