Thunder set to push Mavericks to brink of elimination

Top-seeded and playing like it again, the Oklahoma City Thunder have stacked the odds in their favor as they head into Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal series Wednesday against the visiting Dallas Mavericks.

With a 100-96 victory in Game 4 Monday, the Thunder have evened the series at two games. And with two of the next three potential games at Oklahoma City, the Thunder can once again see a path forward to their first Western Conference final since 2016.

That path was a bit obstructed until Oklahoma City rallied from a 14-point deficit in the third quarter Monday and an eight-point hole with fewer than eight minutes remaining in regulation.

When Oklahoma City needed Shai Gilgeous-Alexander most, he was there again with a 22-point second half and a 10-point fourth quarter on 4-of-7 shooting in the final 12 minutes. His fadeaway from close range with 4:02 remaining tied the score at 86 and the Thunder never trailed again.

“Ultimately, it just comes down to, for the most part, taking what the defense gives you and trusting your teammates,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “You need them to win at a high level and that’s clear as day. And I want to win at a high level so I have no option.”

While Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 34 points, his third consecutive game of at least 30 in the series, Chet Holmgren added 18 points with nine rebounds and also was a factor down the stretch.

Holmgren’s only 3-pointer came with 3:24 remaining, off a Gilgeous-Alexander pass, and put the Thunder up for good at 89-86. And when the Mavericks pulled to within a point with 10 seconds remaining, Holmgren followed with two key free throws.

“Free throws are big,” Holmgren said afterward, kicking himself for having the team’s only miss earlier in the game on a night the Thunder went 23-for-24 from the line.

“Those are extremely important and we have a lot of players who are hard-working and put a lot of emphasis on making free throws, too.”

The Mavericks head back on the road, left to think about what could have been.

P.J. Washington scored 21 points with 12 rebounds, but Luka Doncic was held to 18 points on 6-of-20 shooting and Kyrie Irving was held to nine points, going 4-of-11 from the floor.

Doncic had a triple-double with 12 rebounds and 10 assists. Irving added nine more assists, but Dallas was weakened by a 15-point third quarter that included just five made baskets in 20 attempts (25.0 percent).

“I feel like we played well enough to get the W tonight, but we just didn’t finish the job,” Irving said. “The little things matter: free throws, offensive rebounds, those 50-50 basketballs we saw when they beat us in OKC.”

On defense, Dallas held Oklahoma City to 38.0 percent shooting and 25.9 percent from 3-point range. They even had 13 blocked shots, with Derrick Jones Jr. and Dereck Lively II recording four apiece.

But Oklahoma City countered by holding Irving and Doncic in check in a victory that altered the series dramatically.

“You look at the scorers on both sides, the percentages aren’t always going to be great,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said.

“I think (Irving) is doing a great job of leading on the defensive end and he’s taking his opportunities on the offensive end. He just didn’t knock them down tonight.”