In the Denver Nuggets’ attempt to turn conventional wisdom on its head, score one for conventional wisdom. After posting exceptional offensive efficiency numbers early in the game, weathering a furious charge in the second and third quarters, and batting tooth and nail in the fourth Denver found themselves leading the Thunder 101-100 with three minutes left. They would not make another basket the rest of the night.
The only way the Nuggets’ closer by committee would fail was if either no one was hot or if some player tried to force becoming hot. Well, There was certainly no hot player the Nuggets could turn to. Instead of attempting to earn a good look by passing and cutting the Nuggets tried to force something out of their bread and butter, the pick and roll.
The final few possessions following Gallo’s nice jumper went like this:
There was confusion and forced shots. The team seemed to struggle executing the plays drawn up in the huddle after timeouts and they seemed a little too content to run the clock forcing them into shots such as Kenyon’s ill-fated 22 footer when the shot clock was running down.
The Thunder on the other hand rode the hot hand of the player most expected to win the MVP before the season started as Kevin Durant showed his ability to make shots regardless of how little space he has to shoot or how far from the rim he is. Durant poured in 25 second half points converting 9-13 from the floor and 4-4 from the line. Combined with Russell Westbrook’s 21 point first half it was enough to carry the Thunder past the increasingly sloppy and discombobulated Nuggets.
After re-watching the game through the power of Synergy it confirmed my belief that the Nuggets actually did a pretty good job on Westbrook. He was not allowed free access to the lane and scored his points on long jumpers, the weakest aspect of his game. If the Thunder need Westbrook to play like that every night, it bodes well for Denver.
Regarding Durant, I was surprised the Nuggets chose to cover Durant straight up all night. They did very little switching and when they did it was a matter of trying to get a better defender on him, not by design. He was able to get in a very smooth rhythm and Denver did nothing to try to get him out of it.
The Nuggets who took turns checking the Wiry Bomber included Wilson Chandler, Gallinari, Martin and Felton. It seemed to me that as expected Chandler did the best against Durant as he was most effective of playing with some physicality and pushing KD a little further from the hoop than he would typically like to be, but Chandler did not do so with enough consistency to make a difference.
The bad news for Denver was they were able to get Durant to settle for numerous long jumpers, especially in the second half, and Westbrook was kept out of the lane and off the line plus the two supporting cast provided very little help with only Eric Maynor making a major impact from a scoring standpoint and the Thunder still won.
The good news is while the rest of the Thunder players will surely provide more of a boost in the future, it is difficult to fathom Durant and Westbrook doing this game after game.
Offensively the Nuggets failed completely in two areas I projected they must succeed in to win this series. First on everyone’s mind is the horrific free throw shooting. I would like to know what the coaching staff has done to try to solve this problem. I believe a practice full of nothing other than long sprint sessions followed by free throw shooting sessions followed by long springing sessions followed by more free throw shooting sessions followed by more running and free throw shooting would be in order. Denver converted on only 21 of 33 free throws and every one of those misses was a killer in such a tight game.
The other area Denver must improve on is their three point shooting. Denver made only ten of 30 three point attempts in the two previous post trade contests versus the Thunder. That must improve and early in the game the Nuggets looked like they had their eye from behind the arc back. Gallinari and Chandler each made shots from downtown in the first 2:08 and when Al Harrington converted a three from the corner on Denver’s second possession of the second quarter the Nuggets matched their biggest lead of 13. It would also be the final three point shot Denver would make all night going 0-11 over the final 35 minutes of the game.
The biggest difference in the game, and possibly the series, was the Thunder made an important half time adjustment on how they defended Ty Lawson. They pre-rotated help to his side when he had the ball, whether there was a screen waiting or not. As a result he did not have much room to operate and he grew passive. By the end of the game Lawson was a mere afterthought and much of the offense was initiated by Felton. As notated above in our recounting of the final three minutes, Felton was not sharp finishing the fourth quarter having made only one of his five attempts.
Even when Karl drew up an out of bounds play for Lawson, the Thunder bracketed him off the screens to prevent him from getting the ball. Denver was hurt by Lawson’s passive response to the way he was defended. Most players who have a play of that significance drawn up for them will circle back and do whatever they can to get the ball. On that play it was Felton who reacted that way as Lawson stood along the sideline waiting for someone else to make a play.
Regardless of the situation Lawson must be more aggressive in gashing the OKC defense. Even if help is ready, he is quick enough to exploit the gaps between defenders and he is the lone Nugget who can force the Thunder to overcommit players and open up the floor for everyone else. Denver also fell into the trap of running one pick and roll and if it did not work the possession turned into a mad scramble. As I pointed out in my preview the Nuggets need to be more patient and run some action or even a first pick and roll to soften up the defense where they can reverse the ball and hit the Thunder with another pick and roll.
As long as Lawson allows himself to be taken out of the action Denver will struggle to keep up with OKC. Did I sufficiently pound that point into the ground?
All in all, it was a great effort by the Nuggets and they certainly made a good showing against a very good team on the road. My primary concern at this point is after Denver had such a great start to the game only to see the Thunder roar back and pull out a third straight win that OKC may have placed significant doubts in the heads of the Nuggets. I believed this was a crucial game for Denver to avoid such a scenario. However, as long as Denver can pull off a win in game two, they should be fine as I expect them to play well in Denver as long as they are not demoralized.
Pace Factor: 93.2 – The second half was played at a much slower pace than the first, 89.0 to 97.3, which was beneficial to OKC with Durant dominating the Nuggets halfcourt defense. Neither team ran much with both earning a mere nine fast break points and there were plenty of possessions that went deep into the shot clock.
Defensive Efficiency: 114.8 – This is more a reflection of how good KD and Westbrook were. Denver’s defense was not that bad, but regardless of what kind of night your opponent is having, you need to get stops. The Nuggets did pretty well down the stretch holding the Thunder to one legitimate basket and one illegitimate one over the final 3:25.
Offensive Efficiency: 110.5 – By far the best showing of the three recent games against OKC. Denver should be able to score on OKC, especially once they start making their free throws and threes.