DALLAS (Reuters) - The Dallas Mavericks overcame an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter to reach the NBA finals for only the second time with a 100-96 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder Wednesday.
Dallas clinched the best-of-seven Western Conference Finals series by a 4-1 margin with the thrilling Game Five win and will face either the Miami Heat or the Chicago Bulls in the NBA finals. The Heat lead that series 3-1.
Roared on by their home fans, talisman Dirk Nowitzki, who sealed the triumph with a pair of late free throws, and fellow forward Shawn Marion scored 26 points apiece while Jason Terry weighed in with 12 points off the bench.
Guard Russell Westbrook scored a game-high 31 points for the Thunder, who were unable to prevent the Mavericks from conjuring a second successive come-from-behind win. NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant added 23 points for the visitors.
"They played a small lineup and really tried to jump the game up," Nowitzki told reporters of the Thunder. "They drilled us on transition all night long and you've got to give them credit. They left it all out there today.
"We just had to get some stops down the stretch. We finally got away with a little zone (defense), a little man-to-man, and got some stops. That was big."
After the Mavericks were presented on court with the Western Conference trophy, team owner Mark Cuban said: "All I can tell everybody is: 'We ain't done yet'."
As the fans began chanting: "Beat the Heat, Beat the Heat," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said courtside: "All of us, including all of our fans, believe. We believe in each other. This is a great moment but we've got a lot of work left."
Dallas, who won Game Four 112-105 after overtime in Oklahoma City two days earlier, opened an early six-point lead but the Thunder roared back to lead 27-26 after the first quarter.
The Mavericks twice drew level before the fourth-seeded Thunder edged ahead again to lead 55-53 at halftime.
With James Harden and Nick Collison sparking Oklahoma City's bench, the visitors kept the third seeds under continual pressure to grab a 76-72 advantage going into the final period.
Westbrook landed a two-point jumper to put the Thunder ahead 85-77 for the biggest lead of the night with 9.14 remaining.
However, the Mavericks steadily clawed their way back, and had reduced the deficit to 92-90 with a little under four minutes on the clock following consecutive pairs of free throws from Nowitzki and veteran Marion.
Nowitzki then missed a three-point attempt but Dallas stole the rebound and this time the German made no mistake from beyond the arc to put his team ahead 95-94 with 1.14 left.
"The guys did a great job getting to a loose ball and I said: 'It's now or ever. We've got to go for it.' And I was able to knock it down," Nowitzki said.
The Thunder again lost possession, this time on attack, and Marion burst away to score with a running slam dunk shot, forcing a foul for a bonus free throw to give Dallas a 98-94 lead which they never relinquished.
The Mavericks, who swept the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in the previous round, reached the NBA finals once before in 2006, when they were beaten 4-2 by the Miami Heat.
"We were right there where we wanted to be but couldn't close out," said Nowitzki who, along with Terry, was part of that Mavericks team. "Miami, they played a heck of a series.
"We are back again and hopefully with a better result now. We've got a bunch of veterans who want to win and play off each other. We will see how it goes."
(Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by John O'Brien)