If basketball were a semester of college drinking, this game would be classified as The Hangover. After coming off one of the best wins of the season against the Lakers on Sunday — just like a wild night of partying — the concerns of the after-effects were the last thing on our minds. But tonight, we were sobered up and pushed back into the realm of reality as the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant reminded us that, as Prince would say, “Parties weren’t meant to last.” The amount of storylines one could extract from this loss are endless. From the missed free-throws, to the “super-star effect” of Durant, to the inexplicable 16 minutes of playing time JR got, to Scott Brook excellent momentum-killing time-outs, to the Nuggets inability to rebound the ball, to the — what I’m now referring to as the Nuggets sound technician loss (more on this later); it was all there. Rifling through my notes I see endless exclamation points and stars at the beginning of key-sentences, but unfortunately what I’m not seeing is the final score we all so confidently felt would result before the game where the Denver Nuggets bested the Thunder as they breathed more life into the herculean team that we’ve all come to know and love. This game is was a reality check, plain and simple. It reminded us that, although hot as ever, the NBA is still a 30-team league full of the best players in the world and on any given night you can be beat no matter how invincible you may seem.
To start the game, my interest was drawn towards the reinvented Thunder front-court of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Since that brilliant trade (from the Thunder’s standpoint) concocted by Sam Presti that landed Perkings in Oklahoma City, the Thunder have been playing like a totally different team. Before you felt they were talented, but lacked an identity. Since that point in time the identity of the Thunder has been their strong-point and as evident by tonight, it’s a lethal one. We always knew Durant and Westbrook were All-Stars, and some of the best creators in the league at their respective positions, but they never had that Kenyon Martin type of player who would do their dirty work when called upon. Unfortunately for us, now they do, and that enforcer comes in the from of Kendrick Perkins.
The swiftness to which this identity slapped fellow Nuggets fans across the face tonight was, again, sobering — and painful of course. From the very start of the game the Nuggets struggled to rebound the ball, and it paid off for the Thunder in the from of extra possessions. At one point in time my friend turned towards me and said, “Wow, Raymond Felton is getting rebounds.” Short, subtle, but entirely spot-on. Overall the Thunder finished with 50 rebounds in contrast to our 41 — 24 of which went to Ibaka and Perkins.
Other than the Oklahoma City front-court, the second dominating storyline of the first quarter was the continuing fad of the Nuggets choosing to start games off as if they’re recovering from a tranquilizer shot. While the Thunder were playing with hands more active than a mime at the Ringling Brothers Circus, the Nuggets looked lethargic and comatose once again. Mozgov went down with what looked to be a pretty serious knee injury, and at that point what measly amount of energy had been generated totally fled the building. The Thunder led 27-16 after one.
Then, the man we’ve all come to love and seriously want to thump on the head at times came into the game and revived the drowning Nuggets once again. JR and the crowd are like peas and carrots, as Forrest Gump would say. They each love one another equally and feed of the energy supplied by their counterpart to the point where the most static, and loving conductivity you could ever imagine is dancing throughout the arena from fan to fan. (It truly is a beautiful thing to experience and if you haven’t yet, I urge you to do so by going to a game.) With that power in hand, the Nuggets managed to finally get themselves back into the contest, and displayed some much need pride along the way. Though our bad shot selection and poor perimeter defense continued, we managed to overcome our imperfections and pull ahead by one at half-time.
When the third quarter began it was clear one of the primary storylines mentioned above was well underway in crippling the Nuggets chances for success: free-throw shooting. It was at this point when Nene and Felton started to miss their combined seven free-throws by the night’s end; it was also at this point when the once-electric energy built-up in the second quarter was squashed. Though the Nuggets and Thunder went back-and-fourth throughout the period, you never got a sense that the Nuggets were on the way to one of their patented runs we’ve seen recently. I credit a lot of this to Scott Brooks excellent (and I mean excellent) time-out calling, as he seemed to let his trepidation guide him through the contest as he made one timely clip in the Nuggets’ circuit of energy after another, until no more were left. But even with Scott Brooks constantly pestering their “swag” the Nuggets finished the quarter only down by two, 67-69.
When the fourth quarter rolled around you knew it was game-time; you also knew the Nuggets would grind their way to yet another scrappy win, right? Ugh…wrong. Though we managed to hang for most of the quarter, it was as if that’s all we were really doing: hanging. After about three minutes in you could feel the grip we were barely managing to hold start to deteriorate. The Thunder kept on playing great basketball while we just kept on going one-on-one and not making the types of plays we needed to make in order to win. You’ve got to give credit where it’s due, as the Thunder played excellent all night, especially on the defensive side of the ball where they held the highest scoring team in the league to only 94 points. If we had made some more free-throws and prevented the Thunder front-court from bringing down so many boards this quarter might have ended differently, but again it’s hard to take away from how good the Thunder played. As the game concluded I happened to glance up at the board displaying rebounding, blocks and steals; the Thunder led 62-46 in those categories combined.
As far as individual performances go Ty Lawson was the only guy who actually brought a flamethrower to the knife fight. He finished with 28 points on 10-18 from the field and 8-9 from the line, not to mention handing out five assists in the process. Gallinari also had a pretty good shooting performance as he netted 17 points on 5-9 from the field, 3-4 from behind the arc and 4-5 from the line. What should be noted most perhaps is Nene’s abysmal shooting tonight where he went 3-10 from the field and 1-4 from the line. He did bring down eight boards, three assists and two blocks, but sadly his shooting proved to be the thing Nuggets fans will remember most.
Tough loss indeed. I don’t think anybody expected it, but we have to make it our mission to get this one back when we play Oklahoma City in their house on Friday. These guys aren’t better than us, and as my friend put it “You shut down Durant, you shut down the Thunder.” Doing this will probably require some help from Arron Afflalo, but there’s no need to rush him back from injury. Chandler did an admirable job on Durant most of the game and it’s my feeling that if we can have both Afflalo and him on Durant/Westbrook the entire first-round series we shouldn’t have a problem.
On to Dallas tomorrow. It won’t be easy, but the fight this team has shown recently makes me confident we’ll bounce back swinging.
– Poor Moz. Dude finally looks to be getting the run he deserves and he goes down with a knee injury just minutes withing being inserted into the first quarter. Reportedly it’s nothing serious, but he still didn’t make the trip to Dallas afterward. You have to wonder how the game might have turned out had Mozgov been able to tame Perkins or Ibaka’s rebounding numbers. Get well soon big guy.
– Kufos became the beneficiary of a depleted front-court; and that’s probably the last time I’ll ever say that sentence. There’s nothing worse than a bench player not being able to understand their role and Kufos epitomized this notion as he attempted his best Pau Gasol impression with the three minutes of playing time he was granted.
– Watching Ty in real life is exhilarating. If you think he’s fast on TV, please do yourself a favor and catch a game at the Can — that is, if you can even see him.
– The Thunder’s first step off the dribble — specifically Durant and Westbrook’s — killed us tonight. I don’t know how many times both those guys caught us off balance and took it all the way to the hole or pulled up for a swishy jump-shot.
– I’m blaming this loss on the Nuggets sound technician, or whoever the hell chooses the music. I swear, “Blister in the Sun” came on in the fourth quarter and from that point on everything went downhill. I warned these guys not too long ago about how bad of an omen it is to be playing that song when JR has the ball in his hands, but nooooo, they went on ahead and did it again. “Blister in the Sun” is not a bad song — I actually like it — but it’s just not the type of song you play when JR is about ready to break some poor souls’ ankles. He needs some “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” or “In Da Club” by 50 Cent, not John freakin’ Mellencamp or the theme to Friday the 13th! Hell, they might as well play “Every Rose has it’s Thorn” when K-Mart is about to posterize somebody while they’re at it.
– Speaking of K-Mart, raise your hand if you want to see him and Kendrick Perkins go at it in a seven-game series! (I do!)