2011 NBA Playoffs – Game Three: Fin

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

  • Free throw shooting again proves to be the Nuggets’ Achilles Heel for the third game in a row. It is frustrating and disappointing, but not much of an excuse for the all-around way Oklahoma City outplayed them for the duration. If anything I thought the free throw shooting was indicative of the Nuggets failure to adjust since game one. It also reflected the overall soft and timid mindset most of the Nuggets took in terms of finishing at the rim. There were very few statement finishes or hard drives to the rim this game. It was a soft and sloppy offensive performance by Denver in which they appeared intimidated.
  • I didn’t think JR Smith’s desperation heave at the buzzer warranted a foul being called. JR gave up his dribble too early and nearly traveled without going into a decisive shooting motion. Harden also went straight up and did beat Smith to the spot before an attempt at the shot was made. The defensive play was a lot more solid than the offense in that particular instance and it is depressing how bad the Nuggets are in those types of situations
  • From the beginning of the series we said confidence would be a major factor. OKC has some serious swag and after the two road losses the entire atmosphere at the Pepsi Center seemed deflated. The Nuggets were loose and carefree going in but the Thunder were the more intense physical team on the floor. Towards the end of the game as the Nuggets mounting a furious comeback with difficult threes , they gave up uncontested layups to Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka en route to the 3 point loss. Some of the crowd had already begun heading for the exits at that point and the Nuggets didn’t have a sense of urgency– they seemed surprised and shocked to be in it when getting within one possession.
  • The Nuggets made only 6 of 23 threes, bringing the grand total of threes made in this series to 17 over three games. The Nuggets efficiency has taken a sharp nosedive thanks to the poor free throw and three point percentages and the defense isn’t near good enough to make up that kind of ground against a talented team like OKC. Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari are all struggling with a lack of confidence and their normally decent shot selection has become seriously awful. It’s not that they can’t shoot anymore, they simply don’t. It’s only part of the problem I see in the Nuggets forcing shots at the rim and in transition instead of executing an offense.  
  • The coaching. It is definitely not to blame for the nonchalant defensive effort, the free throw shooting or the overall passive response to getting bullied throughout this series. However after game two I find it hard to believe there was an honest effort to adjust for OKC’s size advantage. The rotations between the first and second halves made no sense and it doesn’t appear there is any responsibility taken on the part of the staff for the mistakes and mismatches the Nuggets are voluntarily creating.
  • On my list of adjustments to watch for after game two the Nuggets accomplished none of them beyond more ball pressure on Kevin Durant. Even if the Nuggets were somehow able to make their free throws and get a lucky call or two to go their way, I feel this was one of the ugliest offensive performances yet in the biggest game of the season.

Advanced Stats

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

  • jjjjjjjjjrrrrrrrrrrr

    why didn’t karl use his 7 footers and get chandler off the floor – he had 4 games to realise small ball with lawson and felton playing at the same time doesn’t work with the talented thunder boys ,, our PGs are at their best when allowed to QB the team individually – we have plenty of big bodies to match up with them , karl’s day dreaminess high off pain killers for cancer treatment- killed us – its like he is just going threw the motions ,skipping down the yellow brick road in fantasy land — the line ups made no since , he made no adjustments , no gameplan , just doing silly rotations , subsitutions before a player warms up , benching playmakers and letting the NY scrubs chandler and felton get their team tryouts with a ton of wasted minutes and a big combination of 9 points 2 asst and affolo went ice cold for 3 qrts and hasn’t played in 2 weeks got way too much playing time -and did jackshit after the first 5 min. but stayed on the floor – this shit should of been handled weeks ago with players knowing exactly what their rolls are ,, but karl was successful after the trade – so he just figures to play free balls street ball iand maybe get lucky in the playoffs ,, giving every jackass playing time to run on the floor take a stupid shot and run right back to the bench — its so silly — fact is this coach is burnt out and needs some serious rest in a hospital bed

  • Michael

    Despite your poor grammar and insults to Mr. Karl, I tend to agree with you. He needs to put freaking jr smith in to close the game out. It’s not that hard to see, I would much rather had Jr jacking up threes and making them than felton or chandler. It’s sad because i want Jr to stay in Denver but Karl is basically kicking him out with the playtime issue and his coaching which, hint hint ” has not been working.” Two point guards doesn’t work. Plain and simple

    • Charlie

      I think JR has been thrown under the bus too many times to come back to Denver at this point. It’s been a strange six years with JR and I’ve always thought he did have a chance to make himself a great player in Denver. This series I’ve been questioning that as the guy really has not had a chance to be a factor and that has been disappointing to see.

      I never insulted Karl beyond taking issue with the whole team’s failure to adjust since game one of the series. I do think he brought a lot of the turmoil and instability surrounding the team on himself. Throwing JR under the bus yet again for having a rough night was just tearing apart the fabric and confidence of an already fragile team.

      Gallo and Chandler are in the playoffs for the first time. It is the only reason. It is the only reason I cut them maybe a little more slack than I should. The player who is most disappointing the series however is Raymond Felton who is assuming control of the biggest moments of this series and just not doing very well. I never insulted Karl beyond pointing out his role in dividing the locker room at a time when they needed to be banding together and supporting each other.

      It’s one thing to be getting outplayed by a better team in this series. That is certainly what we are seeing now and I admit I was mistaken about the defense and balance of this Thunder team. However to once again have all of this drama draped over the team at a time when the series was still alive is something there is not an excuse for. It’s similar to what happened last year against Utah when most blamed Adrian Dantley and claimed Karl’s presence and leadership would have prevented the players from melting down. Compared to the ball we’ve seen as this series goes on last years Dantley team is looking like world beaters.

    • http://deleted jjjjjjjjjrrrrrrrrrrr

      what do u work for the spell check police department or something smart ass ?? , u get the piont — to hell with karl – he is all washed up with a hitler complex – JR could easily put up melo type numbers with less time and attempts , after melo left jr should have been resigned with a fatass contract and given major minutes , i never really had a problem with karl up to this point , but what he is doing is unforgivable — watch how many teams line up with 50 mill 5 yr contracts after the stupid lockout BS , and i guarantee he won’t be coming off the bench playing 6 to 12 minutes — he going to light this league up , but denver’s front office is too blind to the fact ,, we lose JR ? you should just move this team to seattle or someshit hole town because it will be in the same category as the clippers ,timberwolves , ect.for many years to come

  • Joel

    I would be fully behind a coaching change. Yes, George Karl has done a great job in dealing with HUGE personalities and taking this team to the playoffs year after year. However, the structure of the team, particularly offensively is disappointig from a coach that could go to the Hall of Fame if he gets some rings. And with the West how it is, the Nuggets have enough weapons to get into the Finals the last few years.

    When you have a dominant big man in Nebe there needs to be an offence around him. You have a speedy point guard who can get into the paint at will and one of the most explosive scorers in the NBA. Lawson shouldn’t play together with Felton, it doesnt work as many have stated. JR should be a 6th man like J. Terry or J. Crawford. And then there should be measure of patience, they will both make mistakes but they will also win basketball games.

    Chandler has no heart whatsoever, and I think it’s obvious he doesn’t wanna play in Denver, he has added nothing to the team since he arrived. However, if he played to his potential he is very valuable. I like Gallo and thought he did pretty well on Durante but couldn’t get into the game or off the bench. He has the potential to be a matchup nightmare so get him involved.

    I feel like this Nuggets team, with a bit of organization offensively could be a title contender. Make JR your main scorer and closer and be prepared to take the good with the bad. Add a solid big man and we will be set. For this to happen I think we need a coaching change and then a good off/pre-season to get a solid team structure.

  • Josh

    Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari are the keys to this series right now. They were both huge parts of the Nuggets’ success in the regular season, and they have both been playing poorly since game one of the playoffs. Chandler has been shooting 25% from the field and 20% from behind the arc, down 40% and 33% respectively from the regular season. Gallinari has been consistently missing his free throws, and averaging significantly less points and rebounds per game. Yes, they are young and inexperienced in the playoffs, but they need to be called out here. There are no excuses right now. If either one of these guys can heat up, they will become that go-to guy the team so desperately needs. They both have the potential, all it takes is a little momentum and some early made shots. George Karl needs to seriously think about something called “team chemistry”: when you mess with it in the playoffs, you lose it. Pulling specific guys out (JR) early for poor performances, even though the whole team is playing poorly, is not a recipe for winning — it’s a recipe for frustration. Karl might be a good coach during the regular season, but he has proven time and time again that his method in the playoffs is flawed. At what point does he stop and think,”Hey, we haven’t made it out of the first round in 7 out of 8 of our playoff runs. Maybe I should try something different…” Clearly, he did not have that conversation with himself this year. The most important factor for winning in the playoffs is positive mental reinforcement. This needs to come from everyone on the team, especially Karl.

    • Josh

      *edit: down “from” 40% and 33%

  • DH

    One thing you didn’t discuss, Charlie, was that last possession (other than to say it was not a foul, which I agree with). It seems to me that with 10 seconds left, you go for a quick 2, if possible. I thought that when Nene got the ball, Afflalo or someone should have cut through the lane and maybe we would have had an easy layup. If that wasn’t open, then we still had time to look for the 3.

    OKC seemed to be expecting a 3, so I really think we could have scored with 7 seconds or so left on the clock. Then we could have fouled right away and we would have had about 5 seconds for one last possession. And we might have been down by only 1 or 2 (3 at the most), depending on the OKC free throws. Anyway, I was screaming “go for 2″ at my TV, and I’m wondering what your thoughts were at the time.

    Also, on that last shot, I think JR used his dribble just trying to get control of the ball, which I think was partly due to Harden’s defense and partly a bit of bad luck. I don’t think he purposely used his dribble. At least I hope not. What I do fault JR for, though, is that he had Afflalo open 10 feet away from him, and Afflalo’s defender was inexplicably playing off of him. JR should have passed. Maybe the defender would have closed on Afflalo, but now we’ll never know. And JR had no shot anyway.

    I agree with just about everything else you said. But even with this series looking like a mismatch in some ways, the reality is that with some decent free throw shooting or with just a couple of better possessions in games 1 and 3, we could be up 2 to 1. I guess that just makes it more painful because there were so many things we could have and should have done better.

  • http://deleted jjjjjjjjjrrrrrrrrrrr

    nuggets will win tonight by 20 plus pionts – and there will be a game 7 — i live in vegas, the CALL just came in on the fix — BET and bet big nugget fans !!! parlay style — GOOD AS GOLD refs will shut the thunder DOWN !!!