After five straight losses in April alone the Denver Nuggets finally managed to win a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. In a nutshell it was desperation and pride pushing Denver to overcome their struggles long enough to avoid an embarrassing first round sweep. Down three games to one it was certainly not a series-changing win but nevertheless it was a statement that this team has worked too hard to end their season at home on such a sour note.
Much like game one the Nuggets did an excellent job forcing the Thunder into difficult shots and mostly contested jumpers. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook again scored 30 a piece as they did in that game but needed a combined 48 shots to do so and both tallied 5 personal fouls as well. Denver finally put pressure on the superstar duo to exert energy on both ends and it resulted in the Thunder looking tired and discombulated for the first time all series.
However the real storylines behind the Nuggets’ first win of the series go beyond Durant and Westbrook. Denver made an important adjustment in game three as Coach Karl finally limited the use of the disastrous small ball lineup featuring a Felton-Lawson backcourt. Following the game Karl gushed about needing to use Felton and Lawson as much as possible so I have to speculate the coaching staff analyzed the poor results out of this lineup and used it to a smaller extent out of necessity.
The end result was a more conventional all-bench lineup with JR Smith and Birdman being placed into their natural roles on the team. Showing more than a sliver of confidence in the bench did not fix all of Denver’s struggles against OKC but it gave them a lift as the Denver bench outscored the Thunder’s 30-19. Every bench player finished with a positive plus/minus led by the +11 of Chris Andersen.
Birdman and J.R. Smith were the unsung heroes of game four as they were able to find redemption after bearing the brunt of George Karl’s scorn for the team’s struggles. JR contributed a solid all-around effort and hit some of the biggest shots of the night en route to his second straight game scoring 15 points. Birdman’s energy and effort on defense proved to be a crucial ingredient to an elusive win against the Thunder. What’s important is JR played more than 20 minutes for the first time all series and Birdman played 18, his highest of the series as well.
The other important adjustment the Nuggets made centered around the way Ty Lawson was used. They ran him off high screens in the middle of the floor where he was in a better position to use Denver’s spacing and penetrate. As I said before the decision to sit Lawson when Felton subbed in was a huge one that utilized Lawson where he is best – with the ball in his hands as a point guard. Ty responded with aggressive play throughout the game and finished with 27 points on 16 shots making all 9 of his free throw attempts. Again what is most important is that Lawson was given his role as starting point guard which was not exactly the case in the first three games of this series.
Danilo Gallinari’s second half outburst was the final key factor in Denver sealing the win. RMC reader and commenter Josh called me out for taking it easy on Gallo and Chandler for being inexperienced players seeing the first career playoff minutes. Kevin Durant has practically been on vacation having to guard Wilson Chandler, Al Harrington and the struggling Gallinari all series. Durant may have gotten a little lazy seeing how inept the Nuggets have been against him and Gallo took advantage in the second half. There was a marked improvement in Gallo’s aggressiveness with the ball and when given space he did not hesitate to shoot it. Rather than forcing up wild shots into traffic Gallo also displayed his playmaking ability off the dribble as he contributed a team high 4 assists.
It was not the prettiest game as the Nuggets only managed to shoot 38.6% as a team, their second straight sub 40% effort. Other than OKC shooting the ball slightly better and outrebounding the Nuggets by six the game was played almost dead-even. What is most concerning is Arron Afflalo’s bad hamstring flaring up early and seeing him limp through the rest of the first half. This is the third time it has been clear Afflalo is not healthy and likely won’t be for the duration of the series. He would not have sat out such pivotal games in the series if it was a minor issue and you have to wonder if he should even be starting and playing having already re-injured himself twice.
On a similar note Wilson Chandler finally played himself out of the rotation with another no-show performance and shot selection which has gone from bad to worse. In his second game off the bench Wilson lasted only four minutes. Since game two fans have been clamoring for his benching in favor of JR and after game three it seemed inevitable. I am a big fan of Wilson and sad to see such a talented all-around player reduced to a non-factor. At this point I can no longer argue with the fans as he has been hurting the Nuggets’ chances in this series. I wouldn’t give up on Chandler completely as he could be needed with Afflalo definitely still hurt. However if Karl is holding him to the standard as JR then he likely should have been benched a while ago and sitting him tonight was the right decision.
I have been hard on the Nuggets and frustrated with the play in this series. I feel like I need to stress that this team is fighting hard and showing a lot of heart, not just in game four but the majority of the series as well. It’s hard to remember that despite seven straight playoff appearances this is an unproven team with many of its best players having never experienced the pressure of playoff basketball. I cannot fault Kenyon’s determination and his desire to lead this young team to success. Even Al Harrington and Gary Forbes, who have little or no role in this series are being the kind of motivating and positive teammates that only comes from an unselfish desire to win. OKC has simply evolved into a tougher team than many of us could have imagined.
Let’s be honest, the Nuggets are not likely making NBA history by winning this series against all odds but they are playing for something. At best they are a balanced, physical team that can hang with OKC and challenge them at their own game. At worst they are a worthy opponent that will lose out to superior talent and execution. The best thing to take away from this game is the fact that Denver earns one more chance to lay it all on the line and compete in another game. One more game means this season won’t be remembered for a disappointing and uncompetitive ending. That is plenty to play for.
Additional Game Four Nuggets
- Raymond Felton is driving me insane. We’ve talked about shot selection all series and Felton’s is downright atrocious. He is on the floor for his energy and hustle on defense so to put even a modest amount of blame on him for the offensive struggles may not be fair. I don’t put too much into plus minus but Felton’s +1 in game four brings his series total to a whopping -33. Felton is a good player who is holding the ball too much and not playing his best. Believe me, Felton is not the problem in this series but tonight’s game was the first in the series he played an appropriate amount of minutes – 26 to the 36 of starting PG Ty Lawson. There were times in this game I was not sure I could handle watching Felton pound the Nuggets season into the ground as the shot clock expired. The Nuggets needs wins and if Felton wants his customary 30 minutes off the bench the recipe is simple – play better. I cannot fathom how the Nuggets have still not figured out that Lawson needs to be getting 35 minutes a night at this point regardless of what’s going on with Felton.
- Serge Ibaka is a monster. Offensively he is limited and despite that the Nuggets have not been able to stop him. The Nuggets are making a huge mistake by not respecting his talents as a basketball player and they are in deep trouble if they do not start making an effort to guard him. Beyond his breakout offensive performance Ibaka has been dominant on the glass grabbing 14 rebounds in his second straight double-double. Not only do the Nuggets need to guard him they need more size and shot blocking to match his impact on defense. OKC has outrebounded the Nuggets all four games of the series and they grabbed another 12 offensive rebounds, their third double digit effort of the series.
- I’m done talking about the free throw shooting. It’s depressing and if you are reading this that obscenity filled diatribe in your head is exactly how I’m feeling about the situation as well. The question is how do the Nuggets go about fixing it? At this point don’t take anything off the table. The Nuggets need to consider hypnotherapy, a psychic hotline, a motivational speaker and everything in between. They missed 13 free throws and the saving grace was the fact they were awarded exactly 13 more free throws than the Thunder.
- Who would have guessed that the Nuggets, down 3-1 in their series would be in the same position as Orlando and San Antonio? Of course there are two huge differences. One being the fact that the Magic and Spurs are proven playoff performers who face a 3-1 deficit with two games remaining at home. The other of course is the obvious fact that neither went down 3-0 in the series, a deficit no NBA team has ever been able to come back from and win.
- Mozgov was inactive again and could be seen on the bench sporting a purple suit made out of velvet. Despite the tattoos and their outwardly on court appearance the Nuggets off-court fashion has been remarkably boring for the most part. With Mozgov’s Willy Wonka attire and the bathrobe thing Gallo showed up to Denver in after the trade it appears they are done messing around. Our future looks bright. And colorful.
Pace Factor: 96.5 – it’s tough to find a balance against OKC, who play better in the half court but have done fine at Denver’s preferred pace too
Offensive Efficiency: 107.8 – Solid considering the low FG%
Defensive Efficiency: 104.7 – It’s been a struggle, but overall the Nuggets have done well on this end
Game Four Links
- Daily Thunder – for your daily dose of Thunder
- Nuggets stay alive – Benjamin Hochman’s recap at the Post has video and quotes from the press conferences
- True grit gets Nuggets new opportunity – Dave Krieger of the Denver Posts gives his thoughts on game five