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
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