The Oklahoma City Thunder strike first and seize the series momentum in a hard fought battle on their home floor. As is the case with any tough loss there is no shortage of frustration over a game that at times Denver seemed to control. While both teams struggled to get into a comfortable flow tonight’s game was an exciting reminder that this is playoff basketball at it’s finest. It may not have been pretty, but after tonight any doubts about the intense physical nature of the series can be put to rest.
Unfortunately many of the concerns we had before the series came to fruition. Free-throw shooting and injury woes continue to be the fatal flaws this team cannot overcome without improvement. Overall my initial reaction is there is still so much that is equally encouraging. Unfortunately winning is all that matters and the Thunder greatly improve their chances of moving on having gained a head start. The onus is now on Denver to adjust with an already thin margin of error that just got a whole lot thinner.
If you watched the game I doubt my next point will be much of a revelation. As I expected before the series, other than Kevin Durant and Russel Westbrook the Thunder offense is largely a joke. Admittedly that is quite a big caveat as Westbrook and Durant are two of the most elite young talents in the game. The duo combined for over 67% of the Thunder’s 107 points despite playing only 33% of the minutes.
That is an incredibly lopsided way to win a game. The question then becomes is Denver’s poor defense at fault or is it simply a case of better offense winning out? My take is there is definitely a bit of both. The Nuggets gave up only 28 points in the paint and 9 fast break points to the Thunder. Furthermore, the Thunder managed an uncharacteristically low 15 total assists. Durant and Westbrook did nearly all of their damage off jump shots in isolation. Add that to the fact that OKC was shooting nearly 60% from three most of the game and it is impressive that the Nuggets were able to stay in it as long as they did. The Thunder shot early and often from outside and most of the time they simply did not miss.
As I said before this kind of scoring is the essence of OKC’s predictable offensive attack. Their strategy revolves around creating tough looks for star players who welcome the challenge of making them. For the Thunder to go anywhere in the playoffs both likely have to shoot 50% or better and average twenty a piece. As we saw tonight this is a way they are more than capable of winning any game with.
Even so, the Nuggets knew what to expect and often did not do a good enough job defending against it. As Jeremy predicted, Denver gave Durant a variety of looks with Wilson Chandler and Kenyon Martin defending him a majority of the time. Towards the end of the game, George Karl went with a smaller bench unit and the Nuggets were switching all screens leaving Raymond Felton on Durant at crucial fourth quarter stretches. Durant had no problem attacking the mismatch in the post and was able to make every winning play down the stretch.
It cannot be overstated how much Denver is missing the presence of Arron Afflalo. Not only is he going to pull major duty guarding Durant but with him out Ty Lawson was tasked with defending Westbrook one on one. Westbrook was able to bully his way around the paint and with Lawson giving up so much size Wetsbrook had too much room to work with outside. There were a few times a Nugget defender barely managed to get a hand up on his shots and Westbrook was free to pull up and shoot the entire game. Denver did an admirable job forcing him into five turnovers and limiting his effectiveness at the rim, but he is too good a player to leave undefended on the perimeter.
All things considered, Denver played better defensively than the numbers appear to indicate. It was an ugly game in which the Thunder struggled to find easy baskets. Offensively is where the Nuggets fell on their faces and surrendered their early momentum. First off, credit OKC’s defense as the trio of Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, and Serge Ibaka were able to apply pressure and limit Denver’s effectiveness at the rim. In the first half the Nuggets were able to build a 12 point lead with swift off-ball movement and precision passing. Things broke down as the game wore on and as they encountered resistance the Nuggets seemed to panic a bit. Gone was the quick and confident shooting off screens as less offensive-minded players like Kenyon Martin and Raymond Felton often forced hurried shots off broken plays.
Confidence and toughness are not what the Nuggets lack in this series. They were a physical and aggressive presence throughout. Where they faltered is in maintaining poise and control when Oklahoma City challenged. The complete lack of structure on offense is what I feel is the team’s achilles heel. They are simply not great at creating something on their own out of nothing. Denver is at their best when they commit to an offensive game plan and never deviate from it. The pathetic free-throw shooting is indicative of it. The Nuggets set themselves up with a winning formula and fall just short in terms of executing it. It is something the Nuggets have to clean up quick if they hope to extend their postseason run.
Both teams likely did not come forth with their best efforts tonight. There is no more time for excuses at this point, only adjustment. If the attitude and intensity of game one is any indication it should be just the beginning of a battle I do not expect the Nuggets to go down in without a fight.
Game One Notes and Developments
- Felton’s three pointer at the end of regulation was horrible. Not only could the Nuggets have held for the last shot but they had just come out of a time out. It was literally baffling seeing that was the play they came up with and poor execution like that is why Denver did not deserve to win this game. Felton is a good player of whom I am really a fan but a couple of his decisions with the ball towards the end were mind boggling. Lawson should had the ball and more control of the offense down the stretch. He was consistently the Nuggets best game changing threat throughout the night.
- Nene suffered a knee contusion after colliding with Kendrick Perkins in the second quarter. He later returned to the game to complete the Nugget performance of the night with 22 points and 8 rebounds on 9-11 shooting. Personally I am going to speculate that Nene is not 100% physically although he was a complete warrior tonight. Nene looked slightly reluctant attacking the rim, hesitating and settling for outside shots more than he normally does. Nene also did not perform the jump ball at the start of the game with the Nuggets instead opting for Kenyon Martin to do it. An odd choice which leads me speculate Kenyon is currently the healthiest big body on the Nuggets’ front line.
- Speaking of Kenyon Martin, he played a pretty fantastic 33 minutes notching 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists. His defense was commendable all game although he struggled on offense getting a ton of his shots blocked by the explosive Serge Ibaka. Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed are decent additions to the Thunder’s roster but not even close to what the Nuggets should be worrying about in this series. If Ibaka is allowed to become an x-factor and make his mark on the series it could be a serious problem for Denver as it is a very difficult matchup for the Nuggets to deal with.
- Denver’s bench didn’t have a great game. They played only two guards and two bigs off the bench and while they were solid Oklahoma City’s lineups routinely outplayed them. Going small hurts Denver and I really struggle to see why JR Smith deserved such a small role with Arron Afflalo sidelined. Smith is the only offensively competent player off the bench and made things happen in the few minutes he got against Eric Maynor and James Harden. Denver’s depth means nothing if it’s not used and the Nuggets won’t get far without a playmaking threat off the bench. If JR can play decent and get so few minutes with AAA out I shudder to think of how he might be used with a healthy roster available.
- Going small is not likely to work against the Thunder. They have too many athletes and don’t have to adjust to the Nuggets’ current rotation. Al Harrington isn’t much of a threat who will get eaten alive inside by Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed. The options are limited with the number of healthy bodies available but if the offense isn’t able to pick itself up Karl’s insistence on a two point guard lineup could contribute to his teams’ undoing.