Denver Nuggets vs Oklahoma City Thunder: 2011 NBA Quarter-Finals, Game Five; Time to Finish

DENVER, CO - APRIL 25: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder lays up a shot against Nene Hilario #31 of the Denver Nuggets in Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs on April 24, 2011 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

RecordsThe Denver Nuggets (50-32) vs. The Oklahoma City Thunder (55-27)

SeriesGame 1Game 2Game 3Game 4 (Thunder Lead Series 3-1)

Time: 8:30 PM Central Daylight Time

Place: Oklahoma City Arena, Oklahoma City, OK

TV: Turner Network Television, Fox Sports Net Oklahoma HD, Altitude Sports and Entertainment HD

Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1), Mile High Sports Radio 1510

Enemy Blog(s): Denver StiffsRoundball Mining Company

Tonight marks the Thunder's second and hopefully final attempt at closing out the Denver Nuggets. Game Four was disappointing. Either the Thunder will use it as a learning tool to realize what is still necessary to win a game, or they are tempting fate and will experience what real pressure feels like.

In a way, the ending of Game Three was a microcosm of what happened in Game Four in relation to the entire series. Specifically, in Game Three the Thunder thought they had things in hand late and proceeded to relax.

When OKC relaxed, the Nuggets were able to sieze some momentum and make the game far scarier than it should have been. In the same way, the Thunder had won the first three games in a variety of ways - through superstar domination, through defense, and through pure resilience. The Thunder thought they had the series in hand by virtue of the fact that they had won five games in a row against Denver and had advantages at almost every position. Because of this inflated sense of security, OKC did not play Game Four with the same focus or energy as the first three. 

In fact, I was detecting a strange vibe in my skin as I watched the first half of Game Four. During halftime I commented in the game thread that something didn't feel right. I've watched hundreds and hundreds of NBA games, and every so often I can tell when a team isn't totally screwed in tight. There is a feeling of uncertainty, doubt, and malaise. At first it manifests itself in small ways, such as missed free throws, blown defensive assignments, and sloppy fast breaks. It even shows up in freaky ways, like how Eric Maynor's 3/4 court end-of-quarter heave was a fraction of a second late, erasing the amazing shot and waiving off three points (the losing margin to boot). It grows into something more dangerous, like when the Thunder gave multiple offensive rebounds and open looks in the lane. The situation culminates when the Thunder realized that by not doing all of the little things right, they had willingly given up their security blanket and now had to overcompensate to catch a surging team. Thunder fans saw this scenario play itself out a number of times this season, with the two last examples being the back-to-back losses to the Trail Blazers and Clippers.

Game Four ended with a sequence of plays that no doubt evokes a visceral reaction - one guy trying to do too much and failing. However, mostly left unsaid is how the game got to that point. The Thunder arrived at that point not because one guy was trying to do too much, but because a lot of guys were not doing enough of the small things. 

Here is one example of the Thunder missing out on the small things. They trailed at the beginning of the 2nd quarter by six, mostly due to the Nuggets' better energy and obvious desperation. The Thunder dominated the majority of the 2nd quarter, holding the Nuggets to 16 points with just over a minute remaining. The defense had regained its foothold. However, in the final minute the Thunder then proceeded to miss two 3-pointers, commit a turnover, have a shot blocked, and pick up a technical. In a game where both offenses were struggling, the Thunder could have stretched a three point lead to six or eight. Such a late half surge would have had both a galvanizing effect on the Thunder and a demoralizing effect on the Nuggets. However, with these bad sequences and missed opportunities, the Thunder could only go into the half with the game tied. 

The Thunder need to be focused on winning these kinds of small moments, and over the course of 48 minutes, they will be able to better avoid a crisis point like the one late in Game Four.

(As an aside, I would be remiss if I did not mention and give praise to the tenacity that the Nuggets showed in avoiding the sweep on Monday. If you're a Nuggets fan, that was a game with which to be proud. I had chronicled the Nuggets' and Karl's shortcomings earlier, and it was good to see some fight out of his team).

Keys for the Thunder:

  • Focus on the details. Those little missed details may not wield a heavy hammer by themselves, but what they do is eliminate margin for error. In the first three games, the Thunder gave themselves a cushion by paying attention to the details, and because of it, survived all the Nuggets' challenges.
  • Seal off the lane. One of the ways the Thunder got lazy was in guarding against drives into the lane. On Monday, Ty Lawson was able to get to the front of the lane at will, something he had not been able to do since the April 5th game. Nobody is going to be able to stay in front of the quick but diminutive guard by himself, but Lawson can be funneled into the lane so that he's staring into the long arms of Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, and Nazr Mohammed. By marginalizing these drives, not only does it keep Lawson away from the rim, but it also makes the kick-outs to Danilo Gallinari and J.R. Smith more difficult.
  • Better bench play. More specifically, James Harden needs to play with more aggression. He has a tendency to drift on the perimeter too much, and as we saw, Westbrook wasn't really looking in that direction. If Harden is in the game at the same time as Durant or Westbrook, he is likely to be looking at a favorable match-up at the shooting guard position. He's strong enough to get to the rim and is adept at drawing fouls. Harden usually gets around half his points at the charity stripe, but in Game Four only had two attempts. 
  • 4th quarter defense. Here are the 4th quarter point totals allowed by the Thunder through four games: 21-23-21-33. I think this issue is self-explanatory. 
  • Thunder don't need an A+ game. OKC has proven that they have marginal advantages at almost every position. To win, they don't need superhuman efforts from either Durant or Westbrook; they just need everybody to play hard, smart, and within their means. The game will be a dog fight, so OKC has to remember to make every possession count and grind it out in the end.

Prediction: Thunder 100, Denver 92

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