The Oklahoma City Thunder is better than the Denver Nuggets. After four games against the Thunder, and four straight losses, this is the overwhelming sentiment I have gathered.
Other things we have learned thus far:
(A) Ty Lawson cannot guard Russell Westbrook for the life of him, neither can Felton; Arron Afflalo’s absence is killing us.
(B) Having a “superstar,” or even a few All-Stars for that matter, is imperative to playoff success.
(C) Scott Brooks is thoroughly out-coaching George Karl at this juncture.
(D) Shortening the once deep lineup has not had positive results.
(E) In no way does Kevin Durant even remotely resemble Reggie Miller, not even in the slightest form possible. (I hope all you Thunder fans enjoyed that one.)
Obviously there are many other key developments that have risen to our attention since we’ve begun playing the Thunder all the way back to the final two games in the regular season, but these are the most glaring from what I can tell.
In my game notes from the first quarter I wrote, “OKC — great team, but not that much better than us.” Sadly, as the game progressed, they did prove to be that much better than us, for once again, the fourth time in a row. No matter how close the Nuggets came (which really wasn’t that close at all), the Thunder had no problem calling a timeout, regaining composure, and coming back out on a small run of it’s own. It was the story of the entire night: Nuggets go on a mini run, Thunder counter with a bigger one. At no point in time did anybody on the Thunder feel intimidated, rattled, threatened or even worried. They played the entire game with the silent confidence and resolve of a true title contender, and treated the Nuggets as most championship squads do their first round opponents.
When the game first began Westbrook and Durant hit back-to-back threes, which was a microcosm of the series thus far. They established themselves from the very beginning of the game, and made it clear that if we planned on beating them it would take one hell of an effort. Early on K-Mart submitted his “edge” to Ibaka when he foolishly shoved him right to the floor right in front of the referee, earning himself a technical foul and a spot on the bench for most of the time remaining in the half. It was really at that point when the Thunder blew the game open by forcing turnovers, knocking down shots and hauling in nearly every rebound up for grabs. Instead of retaliating with an equal amount of energy, the Nuggets took cover in a nearby bunker, covered their heads and recited the Hail Mary until the quarter was over. Even when timeouts were called to try and stop the bleeding, the Thunder met the Nuggets on the others side with an even more well-executed game plan than the team that needed the timeout in the first place. No matter what the Nuggets tried, the Thunder had an answer and a counter-punch waiting.
In the second quarter, storylines that floated to the surface were: the Thunder bench (specifically James Harden), the Nuggets’ overall wimpy attitude towards the game and the Nuggets’ apparent fear of Kevin Durant. After we initially got buried, the Thunder crowd — which has been a thorn in our side all series — almost appeared to get bored, and with that so did the Thunder. The Nuggets went on it’s largest run of the game, pulling to within 14 of a complacent Thunder bench before Durant entered the contest and immediately changed the culture on the court. I swear, watching in real life it was as if the Nuggets went from gaining confidence, to completely having their perception of the universe shattered. When our run occurred, guys were actually moving, playing descent defense and knocking down shots, but the minute Durant made a bucket everything came to a screeching halt and the Thunder once again built it’s lead back up with ease.
One way to know your team is playing like complete crap is by watching the game — the other is by listening to the half-time analyst’s tone of voice. If it’s disdainful, frustrated and fractious your team is likely losing the game by a very large margin. Charles and Kenny were scolding the Nuggets performance, just as anybody who took time out of their schedule to watch the game would be. When the fourth quarter got underway, TNT actually missed the first minute-and-a-half on purpose to give the viewers a chance to catch up on the Memphis-San Antonio game seen on NBA TV.
In the third quarter all I kept thinking was, “The Nuggets have got to get the mindset that this is just another regular season game.” There is no doubt in my mind that even with the sea of blue and the Thunder playing as good as they were, the game tonight would have been totally different if it were held during the regular season. The Nuggets have freaked themselves out since the Playoffs started, and haven’t been able to relax or play their style of basketball as a result. Winning on the road the last half of the season was customary, now we just seem determined to “hang in there” for as long as possible. Another microcosm of the series came when Gallinari had a two-on-one breakaway with Felton running parallel beside him, and instead of passing, chose to take it all the way to the rim himself where he air-balled a lay up. Immediately following the rebound the Thunder had a two-on-one of it’s own, this time with Durant passing it off to his teammate who made an easy five-foot jump shot. It was the story of the game — the Thunder doing everything right, the Nuggets doing everything wrong. Eventually things got so predictable that the announcers for TNT randomly brought up The Kings Speech and went in-depth about how it would be a great movie for Kenyon Martin to see since, you know, he’s got that whole stuttering problem much like King George VI. I think more than anything I just loved the announcer’s enthusiasm as he proclaimed, “I would say, it’s one of the best I’ve seen in the last decade!” during the middle of a playoff game.
Storyline of the fourth: What does it say about our team’s performance when Al Harrington, who’s largely considered to be one of the weakest links in the rotation, is the best player on the floor for the Nuggets… in a playoff game!!! What was interesting was how we were able to pull withing 10 points of the Thunder’s lead at about the 8:32 mark. At this point, I fully admit, there was a nebulous-like thought deep in the back of my mind that we might just pull this one out to the complete and utter shock of every human being on the planet — buuuuut — I should have known better, as the Thunder once again called a timeout, got grilled by Scott Brooks and effortlessly extended it’s lead right back up to 19 in no time. Game. Set. Match???
The underlying message I got from the Thunder tonight was, “We’re on a mission, and if you get in our way, we’re gonna stop you out.” It’s evident at this point in time, that they’ve playing with a clear goal in mind throughout the series, and that’s one thing the Nuggets are lacking more than anything in my estimation. What are we playing for? Is it to make it past the first round? Is it to win a few games in the first round? How far do these guys really want to go? With the Thunder, you never have to ask yourself any of those questions. They have a crystal clear image in mind and that’s to win a championship. In a way, part of me wants to believe that because the Nuggets don’t have a true superstar, or even an All-Star for that matter, they don’t have confidence in themselves to reach the finals. In the regular season, none of this was relevant because we didn’t have to think about it, but now that it’s staring us straight in the face asking, “What do you really want?,” I think we simply don’t have an answer because we really do not know. Of course our guys would like to win a championship, but do they really believe they can? The only reason I say this is because the lack of confidence we displayed tonight is like nothing I’ve seen since the infamous trade for though-who-shall-not-be-named. For the last few months we’ve seen a team that, no matter what dire circumstance were placed in front of them, always came out the other side fighting for dear life and strengthened because of it (not to mention with a “w” in the win column). Whenever Adversity reared it’s ugly head, the Nuggets spat in its face, pulled together and played as a team. But that team, the team that had just as good of a record the final few months as anybody in the league, is nowhere to be found right now. It’s gone. I was looking for the smallest glimpses of it all night, and all I ever got was one-on-one basketball with a lack of passion for defense. At some point in time, every team has to establish an identity, and I thought the Nuggets had one… up until a few hours ago. Now, all I’m worried about is making this series interesting enough so that we don’t flair out of the playoffs in embarrassing fashion like we’ve done nearly every year since George Karl has been here. Maybe all we need is a little home-cookin’, I don’t know, but as of right now I’m skeptical.
Daily Thunder — Make sure you check this one out if you’re interested in the opponents take. This is a great blog, with excellent writing and a strong community.
Box-Score — Only guys with a positive +/- on the entire team: Kosta Koufos and Gary Forbes. Maybe these guys should get some more run? Forbes might be able to guard Westbrook better than anybody and Koufos has proven he can play. I wouldn’t mind seeing Mozgov out there either if he’s healthy, especially seeing how badly we got out-rebounded tonight (54-31).
My Twitter page — Here you’ll find my thoughts on the game as I am presented them by my brain, links to great reads daily, all Nuggets breaking news and of course a copious amount of epic tweets. But the only way to get all this wonderful information all the time is by following me!
Benjamin Hochman, Oklahoma City blows out Nuggets, 106-89, in Game 2 of NBA Playoffs — Recap by the Denver Post’s award-winning journalist, filled with quotes from Gallinari, Harrington and the always colorful George Karl who states, “the floodgates opened,” when JR went in.
(UPDATE: According to Chris Dempsey and Benjamin Hochman, Arron Afflalo will play in Game 3. Great news for Nuggets fans across the globe!)
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