Dirk Nowitzki #41 of the Dallas Mavericks walks off the court after a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinal at American Airlines Center on May 3, 2012 in Dallas, Texas.
When Kevin Durant finally found his postseason shooting touch for Oklahoma City, the young Thunder were off and running.
And now they are already only one victory from knocking the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks out of the playoffs.
Unlike the first two games in Oklahoma City, Game 3 wasn't even close. Durant got the Thunder off to a quick start and they never trailed on way to a 95-79 victory Thursday night for a commanding 3-0 series lead.
"Kevin is going to stay confident," said fellow 20-something All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook. "Tonight, he was just his regular self. He kind of surprised everybody else, but to us he was his regular self."
Even though Durant missed the first shot of the game, Serge Ibaka turned that into a putback basket. Durant then scored nine points in an early 3-minute span, including two 3-pointers and a 17-foot fadeaway, as Oklahoma City took a 14-7 lead.
Durant finished with 31 points on 11-of-15 shooting. The three-time NBA scoring champion was a combined 15 of 44 in the first two games of the series, though he had a game-winning jumper with 1.5 seconds in the opener.
"He was jumping over us and making shots," Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said.
Westbrook added 20 points while Ibaka had 10 points and 11 rebounds, while James Harden and Derek Fisher both had 10 points.
Now the Thunder get a chance to put away the best-of-seven series in Game 4 Saturday night in Dallas.
"We know we haven't done anything yet," Durant said.
OK, so they haven't won the series yet. But they have put the Mavericks in a hole that no NBA team has ever overcome. None has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a series.
The Mavericks have a nearly impossible climb to avoid being the first defending champion knocked out in the first round of the playoffs since Miami five years ago. After beating Dallas in the 2006 NBA finals, the Heat were swept in four games by Chicago in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs the next season.
"Our mistakes we weren't able to overcome. Their high-level play, we weren't able to overcome either," Carlisle said. "It's really tough to go down 0-3. We're going to keep fighting."
Dirk Nowitzki had 17 points to lead Dallas, which lost the first two games by a combined four points.
"We played two solid games in OKC. Tonight, we picked a bad time to put a stinker out there," Nowitzki said. "We've got to win a game. ... We've got to show some pride on Saturday."
Oklahoma City had a 16-7 lead less than 5 minutes into the game after Durant's alley-oop pass to Ibaka for a layup. The Thunder pushed ahead with 16-5 runs in both the second and third quarters, the later spurt clinching the game.
When Kendrick Perkins had a tip-in of Harden's miss with 4 minutes left in the first quarter, Carlisle was so irate that the field goal wasn't disallowed for basket interference that he had to be restrained by one of his assistant coaches.
Carlisle went ballistic, charging onto the court screaming and pointing at official Marc Davis. Replays showed Carlisle might have had a good argument, but he got called for a technical foul and Westbrook's free throw put the Thunder up 21-11, their first double-digit lead.
"There's been frustration with officials, but we're not going to make it about officials," Carlisle said.
A couple of minutes later, Durant made his third 3-pointer to stretch the gap to 28-13. Durant had 15 points by the end of the first quarter.
Dallas did cut the deficit to 32-26 by the end of the first quarter after Vince Carter made two free throws, had a driving one-handed dunk and ended the quarter with a 3-pointer in the final 1:34 for Dallas. Delonte West started the second quarter with two free throws.
But the Thunder were again up by 15 after consecutive 3-pointers by Fisher and Westbrook.
Harden made a cross-court pass to Fisher in the left corner in front of the Oklahoma City bench. Then after a wide-open Shawn Marion fumbled the ball out of bounds under the Dallas basket, Westbrook hit a 3-pointer for a 48-33 lead that led to a timeout by Carlisle.
Dallas got a slam from Ian Mahinmi and a driving layup by Kidd in the opening minute of the third quarter to get within 50-45.
But the Thunder then had their second 16-5 run, and was back up 66-50 when Thabo Sefolosha made a 3-pointer. The Mavericks never got closer than 11 points after that, finishing the third quarter only 4-of-18 shooting with four turnovers.
"We can't get frustrated. You've got to tip your hat to them. They kicked our butt in every facet of the game," Mavs guard Jason Terry said. "We've got to come out with pride and execute our game plan. We haven't done that in this series."
Notes: Harden was added earlier Thursday to the list of finalists for the 2012 USA Basketball National Team. Thunder teammates Durant and Westbrook are also finalists for the 12-man U.S. Olympic team roster that will be announced later this year. ... Dallas was assessed four technical fouls. Nowitzki got called for one in the first quarter, and West was called in the third quarter when he reached out and grabbed the wrist of official Greg Willard when questioning a call. There was a double technical early in the fourth against Brian Cardinal and Durant.