A hard-fought season might be coming to an end tonight in Game Five for the Oklahoma City Thunder as they head up I-35 to face the Dallas Mavericks, a team that's one win away from the NBA Finals.
The Thunder have to feel utterly demoralized by squandering a 15-point lead with just five minutes left in the fourth quarter in Game Four, on their home court, and then losing in overtime.
Instead of going into Game Five with momentum and a tie in the series, the Thunder have their backs against the wall.
Dallas's comeback was made possible by Dirk Nowitzki, who might be the best player in the NBA at the moment. The Mavericks' big man has shot the ball brilliantly in the series, from the field and from the free-throw line.
The Thunder will need to change their strategy tonight in Dallas.
Head coach Scott Brooks will need to rely more on his bench. In the one victory the Thunder have in the series, Oklahoma City had four starters sitting on the bench in the final quarter.
Benching the starters gave players like James Harden the room to thrive, and Kevin Durant was able to play well with his teammates, who were a weapon on both offense and defense.
The Thunder will be playing Game Five with nothing to lose. Few think think they can recover from the painful Game Four loss and win three games in a row, so they'll be the more relaxed team tonight.
It's time to try something different, and that means more Harden and less Russell Westbrook. Some of the blame for the Game Four collapse fell on the fact that Westbrook had trouble running the offense, and Harden had fouled out.
This time, Harden will likely limit his fouls, and get more playing time. Meanwhile, Brooks will also use more of Daequan Cook and Eric Maynor.
J.J. Barea will get more time in Game Five, after playing just 16 minutes in Game Four. Jason Terry, who shot just seven-of-19 in Game Four, is due to get hot.
The Mavericks will be playing with confidence, and with the interest of finishing off the Thunder early so they can have more rest going into the Finals.
A case can certainly be made that the Thunder are more fatigued than the Mavericks, due to the Grizzlies taking the Thunder to seven games in the Second Round, and the Mavericks sweeping the Lakers.
Head coach Rick Carlisle knows the benefit of a rested team, and the Mavericks don't want this series going any further than five games. Expect a determined game from the Mavericks.
PREDICTION: The Thunder don't get a big game out of Durant, but his teammates Serge Ibaka and Thaba Sefolosha step up. Those contributions mean little, though, as the Mavericks jump out to a lead in the second quarter and don't look back. The Mavericks click in the second half as well thanks to Barea and Terry, and Carlisle sits Nowitzki for most of the fourth quarter, in a one-side contest.
SCORE PREDICTION: Dallas 113, Thunder 101.