Nuggets win Game Four, Still Alive

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.

Advanced Stats

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

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Charlie Yao

Managing Editor at Roundball Mining Company and writer since 2010. Unhealthily obsessed with Nuggets basketball since 2002. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram at the links on the left.
  • Clayton

    Thanks Charlie for the recap… I’m glad they were finally able to pull one out even though I can’t figure out how. OKC hung around all night and beat us in almost every statistical category – shooting %, rebounds, blocks, … list kinda goes on and on from there. Felton is starting to drive me crazy as well. I actually cringed when he was inserted for the final 2 min over JR. His shot selection and “sticky” hands are very inopportune. Chandler clearly needs some rest on that ankle… he hasn’t been the same in weeks. Finally it would be good to see some of Big Al’s minutes go to Kosta as I think we would see an infusion of energy, hard picks, and an actual post game that can get off the ground.

    But above all else, it was nice to see this scrappy team pull it together for at least one night and not lay over like teams of Nuggets past have done in the playoffs when they are on the verge of elimination in a series they aren’t close in – i.e. see last years Utah series. Way to go Nuggets.

  • Joel

    Good writeup Charlie. As a Thunder fan, I knew it was gonna be a dogfight with the Nuggs. They came out swinging and aggressive, which is exactly what needed to happen for them to win. Now, back to OKC for Game 5 (giving me another chance to see another game!).

  • magster

    As bad as the free throw shooting was, it wasn’t horrible in the 4th. Ty Lawson shooting 9-9 from the line was hugely stabilizing.

  • Greg

    I was very happy with the result from last night, but not surprised. Any team with heart will win game four as opposed to being swept, which, in itself, should tell you how beneficial that ‘Melo trade was.

    I would LOVE to see them come back to Denver with a game 6 scheduled, but I’m satisfied. I hope they can keep things together for next year, because an entire year of playing together, as opposed to a couple months, would do these young guys wonders. I would also like to see more of the young big guys playing.

  • Nordmoose

    Thanks, mate, for the write-up.

    Didn’t get to watch the game, again, last night…caught the call of Koz, however.

    For me, at this point, whether the Nuggets win another or no – I just want to see them play *their* game. I’d like to see these Nuggies play 40+ minutes, running the floor, near 100% healthy and playing something close to the level and to the ability that they have. I won’t get these all these things but I want at least what they have. Save for the injuries, I expect, as a fan, them to deliver. I will be disappointed only if they don’t play more like they can on Wednesday – win or loose.

    KD can shoot and is one hella player. Westbrook is a great compliment (though his attitude rubs a rival, but I’d probably like it more were he on my team – go figure). Serge is quickly becoming the player I respect most there. I don’t think Harden is done growing, either. OKC is one hell of a team. The five straight wins over the Nuggets gave them a winning confidence and a “head edge” to boot. Respect to OKC and their fans, indeed.

    But, Nuggets? Get your heads straight and play your game.
    And Karl? Coach. Don’t over think it and don’t try to prove any points to anyone. Just put the best combination on the floor, coach this team and let the results speak.

    I am a lifetime fan and certainly want them to pull this out. I cannot honestly say if it’s that or if it’s a legit assessment what I’m going to say here…but I think we have a better chance to take the game in OKC on Wednesday than the previous three. A “W” can mean a lot. Facing elimination can mean a lot.
    I’m not prepared to claim a series win here but I do expect to see a better game from this Nuggets team on Wednesday.

    Go Nuggets!

  • ParkHillNative

    Nice work, Charlie. And Clayton makes a good point about Chandler’s ankle, I keep forgetting about that as I feel so disappointed by him.

    Lol to the joke about a psychic hotline for the FT shooting. The two best FT shooters on the team went to the Knicks a couple of months ago, and now we find our team down 3-1 in a series where 2 of the 3 losses had margins of defeat significantly lower than the number of missed FT’s. Maybe Masai was right. Maybe we really did get killed in the trade.

  • KW

    I don’t understand what GK is up to in this series. Bird has been tearing OKC apart and gets sat down in crunch time. Felton dribbles around until the clock is about to expire again and again. Moz on the bench looking like he’ll be in a position to scoop us some ice cream later. Koufos DNP-CD.
    At least Nene showed he’s willing to throw Perk into an arm bar when he gets the chance.

    Game ball to Bird for the series…

  • SG

    Good write up Charlie

    As for game, Gallo was what Gallo should be

    Ty is awesome

    Will befuddles me but he should be a keeper

    But I’m even more down about Ray F than you are. The relationship that GK has to RF, trusting him to close games, is disastrous.

    RF almost cost us the game last night esp at the foul line where he missed several shots down the stretch

    Its good to have confidence but you should know who you are. RF plays like he thinks he is Isaih Thomas. He’s a chucker and a forcer with too little talent to be so.

  • Frontrange

    Funny how the announcers all talk about how hard the close-out game is, but it seems to me that we have gone pretty quietly in the past. The only win or go home game Denver won in the ‘Melo era was G5 last year . . nice to have the team not fold in this situation.

    • Frontrange

      Bring back the spirit of ’94 when they won six straight close out games . . .

      • Greg

        i remember that team…seems like george karl was on the other end of one of those series

  • http://GenerationYSports Matt

    I’m new to your blog, but a lifelong Nuggets fan. I’m not familiar with your breakdowns or if your analysis is usually all on the Nuggets end only, so please forgive me for what I’m about to say next if that’s the case. No mention of the Westbrook selfishness in the fourth quarter and how that played into the victory?

    • Joel

      Thunder fans knew this day was coming. Westbrook can get a head of steam about him, and he’ll try to put it all on his shoulders. this time it was too much for the rest of the team to overcome, and therefore, the loss. Hopefully, he’ll learn from it. But probably not for a while.

  • Leffty

    It’s not just the specific matchup, though–it’s the lack of big scoring from the Nuggets all series long. Sure, there is definitely balance to the lineup with such a deep bench, but nobody scores in bunches. Before last night, nobody had scored more than 22 points in a game–and 15 was tops in Game Three. That’s untenable against a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Lawson stepped up last night with 27, and that gave the Nuggs a win. They need more performances like that going forward. Check it out:

  • Thrice1187

    A game 5 win I believe can completely turn this series around for these nuggets. With 2 games in a row under our belt heading back to Denver we might actually stand a chance in this series. The question is can we get a W on the rowdy home court of OKC? I’m not feeling too confident there…

  • Andrew

    Nice work, Charlie. I agree with pretty much everything, and I have been off the Chandler and small ball bandwagon for awhile. They have have chance to win game five, but probably not much.

    It seems as though Karl is just allergic to big men or something. Koufos could really help in this series, but Karl refuses to put him in. I think the Nuggets need a coach that can go after a championship, and I don’t think Karl is that guy.

    For next year, I think theye should trade Wilson for a very athletic, tough defender and/or a wide body down low that can box out and rebound. I also think they should trade Felton back to NY for C Bill, but that is just me.

  • Nuggetsfan145

    A vote for Ujiri as GM of the year. Completely agree with this guys points. Ujiri turned water into wine and got the most out of the Melo trade:

    • ParkHillNative

      Seems like a “no-brainer,” doesn’t it? I’ll be pretty shocked if anybody else wins it.

  • Warner

    I’m a huge Chandler fan and I have to agree with what’s been stated here. Add a nagging injury to a player that doesn’t really want to be here and you find yourself a bench warmer. Personally I believe if Gallo can play like he did last night we could definitely win in OKC. Have Al play SF behind Gallo and play Koufos behind Martin. We’d be much longer and wouldn’t lose any athleticism. Obviously give Ty more playing time with more space to maneuver and have Felton play backup minutes. We’ve got a winning combination

  • Sports-Glory

    Game 5: Nuggets players Smith and Gallo have to play emotional like they did in Game 4. They don’t have to play at home to play with emotions, use the opposing teams crowd and get into the game from the start.

    Make your free throws!!!

  • http://deleted jjjjjjjjjrrrrrrrrrrr

    whats with this home court avalanching bullshiit — all i see in the future is some jackholes being embarrassed in cow town USA —-hold your hat hickleberry’s !! nuggs just getting warmed up

  • Anne

    Somebody just sent me this video… Hilarious and oddly similar to Gallinari’s performance in Game 4! Also feautured: Sexy sideline reporter Melanie Collins in the locker room with Gallo. Must-see!

    • Andrew

      Anne, that was outstanding and completely explains Game 4. The betting fans out there will probably be demanding to know such information about each player before every game…so that they can better manage their bets. Ha ha.

  • Chuck

    I have to admit that OKC has beaten us in every aspect of our own game. Hats off to them. But the real reason for my post is to give a shout out to the classy fans that follow the Thunder. They even compliment their opponents on team blogs, such as this one. While I’m reserved to believe the Nuggets probably won’t pull off the first 3-0 comeback, I’m thankful that they are taking a beat down from the classiest fans/organization in the NBA. Here’s to the winner of this series taking the West!

    • Nordmoose

      +1, Chuck. I agree.
      Of course I want the Nuggets to take this series but either way, I want the winner of this series to represent the West and win the Championship.
      And, specifically, another +1 for the OKC fans that have chimed in here….respect.

      Go Nuggets!

    • http://deleted jjjjjjjjjrrrrrrrrrrr

      oh blow me – its the seattle supersonics , get that threw your corn feed inbreed head beef boy , to hell with you oklahoma sluts and the sorry ass horse you drive

    • http://deleted jjjjjjjjjrrrrrrrrrrr

      bla bla bla – its simple shitheads – just play JR for 30 plus minutes and escort coach karl to the parking lot – it’s to00 bad we can’t bench the coach , if felton and chandler play tonight ? karl should be handed is walking papers and that’s that

  • Ron

    Nice write up! I think that in terms of your player analysis you have pretty much hit everything right on the money. My question though is why is nobody, or at least only a few, placing blame with Karl. I like Karl, but lets face it he has been underachieving in the playoffs. Sure it’s nice to get the 50 win seasons and to make the playoffs 8 straight years, things could be much worse. But in 7 of those 8 years he’s been ousted in the first round. In several of those series, he has created locker room drama which has effected the outcome and relegated them to an early exit. Remember 05-06 Martin was suspended from the Denver Nuggets indefinitely for “conduct detrimental to the team”.

    Game 2 was admittedly terrible. It was however terrible by most everyone on the court, however Karl chose to place the blame on J.R. and Bird while leaving Felton out of his sites. In this game 2, Felton entered with 5:03 left in the first, the score 9-15 and J.R. entered nearly 2 minutes later with the score 9-19. He pulled out J.R. at 8:41 in the 2nd quarter with the score now 17-42. Felton was still in the game, but at that point in time, Felton was a -19 and J.R. was a -15. J.R. never saw the court again, and he chose to put the ball in Felton’s hands watching bad decision after bad decision. Not to mention, Karl knew what sitting him would do to J.R.s fragile ego.

    In game 3, J.R. hit a 3 with a minute to go in the 3rd to tie it 71-71 – the crowd was in a frenzy. Unfortunately, he then proceeded to miss his next 6 shots (and a technical foul). Any of these shots goes in, and maybe he gets on a roll, but instead it got him benched. To me, it looked like everyone else on the court was afraid to take a shot, which is the same as games 1 and 2. J.R. got back in later and almost pulled it out for them.

    It may seem like I am on the J.R. bandwagon, and I do like J.R., but this is about Karl and his decisions. Why keep going to Felton over and over again in the 4th quarter? More importantly, when he does, he takes the ball out of Ty’s hands and lets Felton dribble the clock away? Ty is the point of the future for the Nugs, not Felton so why stroke his ego?

    Ok, I’ve rambled enough…anyone else feel the same?

    • http://deleted jjjjjjjjjrrrrrrrrrrr

      oh i hear u

  • Josh

    Well said, Charlie, and thanks for the mention. There seems to be a consensus that Koufos should get some minutes tonight. That might not be a bad idea. Throughout the season, Denver has relied heavily on their inside game, creating many opportunities for the likes of Nene, Martin, and sometimes Anderson to get to the rim. So far in this series, the inside attack has not been as successful due to the excellent play of Perkins and Ibaka. Nene continues to get fouled and struggles to make free throws. It would be interesting to see how a couple of the Nuggets super-bigs would perform on the court together. A pairing of Nene/Koufos might be just be powerful enough to overwhelm the strong OKC defense. If the Nuggets can formulate a strong attack down low, then they will relieve defensive pressure on the perimeter and create better scoring opportunities for the outside shooters. It might just do the trick.

  • http://deleted jjjjjjjjjrrrrrrrrrrr

    hey chuck u and coach karl can both suck me off !! no just playing – ur a great writer thx for the blog ,, and dont forget to write about the broncos — better luck next year if u don’t die from radiation poisoning , thx japan, damn zipperheads belong in oklahoma — and take the niggets to montana , fucking worthless frogs