It was the finest defensive performance in a series that has been defined by Oklahoma City’s domination on that end of the floor. For a few brief moments it was also a glimpse at the depth and balance that made Denver the NBA’s top scoring team in the regular season. Nevertheless as we’ve seen five times in a row it simply was not enough.
After a lifeless performance in game two the Nuggets started the game with a bounce in their step, no doubt aided by the return of Arron Afflalo to the starting lineup. Many fans got what they had been hoping for as Afflalo matched up on Westbrook and opened the first quarter hot by making three of his first four shots from the field. As they flirted with a double digit lead numerous times the Nuggets seemed to own the energy of a game for the first time all series. It was as if the game was begging to be won and as a dominant home team Denver expected things to bounce their way towards a win and a suddenly competitive first round series.
The strange energy in the crowd kept hinting otherwise. Though they fought hard through the opening minutes the players themselves seemed worn down by the turmoil and doubt an 0-2 deficit had cast over the team. It was towards the midway point of the second quarter when you sensed the Nuggets beginning to lose their grip. They had actually done a decent job until then, defending better than they had all series to a point where the sputtering offense and turnovers were not yet costing them the game.
Afflalo’s return left George Karl’s inevitable dual point guard lineup in an even worse position than it has been all series. Late in the second quarter Karl’s small lineup paired Lawson and Felton together with Chandler, Felton, and Birdman. Even with Nene quickly replacing Birdman is that truly Denver’s best lineup you want carrying the team through the most pivotal stretch of the game?
What happened next won’t come as any surprise to those that who have been watching the series all along. OKC responds with a small lineup of Westbrook, Harden, Sefalosha, and Ibaka with Kevin Durant at the four. Looking at this lineup I can make a strong case that is five mismatches at once and all in the Thunder’s favor. All series long Oklahoma City has destroyed this lineup either by dominating the boards or simply allowing Durant and Westbrook to wreak havoc with the inevitable mismatch they are going to see. This time it was a combination of both as Durant was able to find wide open shots at will and Ibaka punished the Nuggets down low.
The other factor that preceded Denver’s undoing was once again point guard play, something that has haunted the Nuggets all series. Raymond Felton was first off the bench and outpaced most of the starters including Lawson in terms of minutes. Felton was a combined minus-28 in games one and two and had a great deal of trouble staying in front of whatever Thunder player he had been tasked with defending. Whereas players like JR Smith and Birdman have been shown no mercy for similar struggles Felton is getting rewarded by having his role increased at the cost of allowing Ty Lawson to be a point guard. Felton’s questionable shot selection isn’t necessarily new but his ball-stopping indecisiveness was. This has not typically been a problem with Raymond but at every key moment in this series it has been him assuming the point guard duties instead of Lawson and the results have been consistently bad.
Even after losing control of the game by repeating the same mistakes all series, Denver was able to regain the lead after Oklahoma City came out with their worst-played quarter yet. With Ibaka out of the game in the third the Nuggets were able to get a spark from bounce-back performances by JR Smith and Chris Andersen. Despite the Thunder managing only 15 points in that span Denver was only able to respond with 24 of their own and finished the quarter with three straight misses at the free throw line. Even when the Nuggets were able to do things well, there was an overwhelming feeling that OKC’s sustained fundamental attack was still winning the bigger war.
To be honest the final score makes the game seem closer than it really was. Denver should have executed and taken control early as the embattled home team fighting for playoff survival. This Nuggets team is simply playing scared and not competing with the same intensity and desire as their Northwest division rivals. If you did not read Kalen’s reaction to the team’s attitude following game two I encourage you to revisit it. It is not just in execution and adjustments where the Nuggets are getting beat, it is their willingness to compete and their confidence taking a major hit as well
The mental toughness aspect is only the metaphorical way Denver is getting pummeled in these games. Specifically it is the Thunder’s phenomenal pick and roll defense that is making this series a snoozer. Despite some inconsistency out of Kendrick Perkins, the Thunder big men work as a unit and they are owning the matchup for OKC. Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and Nazr Mohammed form a trio of big man depth that covers all bases and is honestly too much for this Nuggets team to handle. They protect the rim, they communicate to get back in transition and they do not hesistate to make a move or shoot when getting the ball in good position. More than anything they display a tremendous amount of hustle on the boards which is the sole reason the Thunder are winning regardless of how well they shoot from the field. Denver has been respectable in terms of allowing offensive rebounds and OKC has exposed them to the tune of 11.67 offensive boards per game.
The Thunder aren’t afraid to defend Nene straight up in the post. However when he gets good position they’ll either double immediately or pre-rotate help off Kenyon, Birdman, or Al Harrington. I think Nene deserves a lot of credit for staying aggressive considering they can’t run a play for him without seeing two or three defenders ready to meet him on the catch. Since game one the Thunder’s strategy is to make Nene put the ball on the floor and foul him. It has paid off as Nene, who averages just under 9 free throw attempts per game, is getting 12 in this series but only converting at a 55% clip.
The Thunder guards complete the other half of their pick and roll defense by doing an excellent job fighting through screens set for the Nugget point guards on the perimeter. As Jeremy noted is his game one thoughts OKC often shaded Lawson towards one side of the floor giving him significantly less passing options. In game three they forced him to go left whenever he had the ball and once again Ty became extremely passive as a result. While Ty was still able to make plays when he had control of the offense Lawson played the majority of his minutes alongside Raymond Felton. As I noted before Felton took the majority of the minutes at point guard and held the ball far too much for my liking. Furthermore when either point guard ran a pick and roll on the wings four defenders stacked the floor towards their side and Denver never had the point guards operate from the middle. As a result the spacing was horrible and they both ended up forcing bad passes that turned into costly points off of turnovers.
In general there’s been no coherent structure to Denver’s offense and they don’t appear to have a plan for scoring in half-court sets. With the Thunder bigs able to lock down Denver’s transition game the Nugget offense has been painful to watch. OKC has been able to dictate pace in all three games and with the athletes they have in the front court Denver is often running into a brick wall trying to force a running attack. It’s hard to imagine this changing without a go-to scorer or a defense that can consistently create the number of transition opportunities it will take to beat OKC.
Defensively I am convinced the Nuggets have done an acceptable job against the high-powered duo of Westbrook and Durant. Where they have fallen off a cliff is of course the rebounding battle and controlling the Thunder bench. Serge Ibaka exploded with a career game of 22 points and 16 boards off the bench and simply manhandled the power forward rotation of Kenyon Martin, Al Harrington and Wilson Chandler. The Nuggets already have no shot at finding an answer for Ibaka’s offense and it does not help that Wilson Chandler has essentially gone from starting at shooting guard to playing a good portion of minutes at power forward in game three.
The complete lack of respect for Ibaka and Collison is appalling. Against a large and talented frontcourt like the Lakers we have seen the Nuggets coaching stuff go small, but not to the same extent as in this series. And believe me, if this Thunder frontcourt isn’t as big and talented as L.A.’s they are not far behind.
If Denver cannot win at home with their playoff lives on the line, not to mention while holding the Thunder to 36.3% shooting – what does that tell you about the guts and toughness behind this team? That is now five in a row lost to the Thunder, with three of those defeats coming in blowout fashion.
The Nuggets may not be playing for anything other than pride at this point, but the series is not over. They will not last another game against OKC without wholesale changes to their attitude and approach. From the gameplan to execution down to individual effort – the Nuggets are losing in every facet. There is no getting around the fact that this has been one of the least competitive series of the playoffs.
I imagine that most fans know the team eventually faces many tough questions when this roller coaster ride of a season comes to an end. I still feel they accomplished a lot in a short time together and they owe it to the fans and themselves to go out with more class and dignity than this.
Additional Game Three Nuggets
Pace Factor: 98.4 – It seemed like a regular season game, one the Nuggets were not particularly interested in
Offensive Efficiency: 95.6 – OKC’s average Defensive Efficiency was 104 for the year, so this is a pathetic showing at home in such a big game
Defensive Efficiency: 98.6 – Much better than either game one or game two, but the Nuggets couldn’t make it count.
Game Three Links