I know, it's not official yet. But with five games remaining in the season and the Thunder up four games on the Nuggets, it would take an absolute miracle for the Thunder to lose their lead. Thus, I'm unofficially locking up the title. On the other hand, the Mavericks are only two games ahead of us, so if we could run the table and they could somehow lose three games, miraculous things would happen, and we'd avoid a first round clash with the Nuggets. Sure, I'm a dreamer, but the snowball effect could start tomorrow when the Mavericks play the Nuggets, so stay tuned.
Getting back to tonight, I have to say that it was a lucky, lucky win. Yes, the Thunder gave a lot of effort and through that effort produced some luck, but the Nuggets would have won this game nine out of ten times. Reason number one? Free throws. The Nuggets were an ugly 17-26 overall, and they were an even worse 7-14 in the third quarter. Had they nailed three or four more free throws in the fourth (to reach a rather average 75%), the Nuggets would have left the Third quarter with a lead and possibly more, as they could have gained confidence at key times. Heck, it's arguable that the Nuggets might have crushed the Thunder in the fourth quarter had they knocked a few more down, but we don't want to go too far down a slippery slope. The point is, the Nuggets missed some clutch free throws that could have sent the game in an entirely different direction.
But the Thunder's savior tonight was Eric Maynor. No doubt about it. As the game progressed through the third quarter, things started heating up. Neither team had a whole lot off offensive flow, and the Thunder were committing turnovers left and right. Russell Westbrook wasn't helping things with his constant charging at the basket, missed shots, and defensive frustration. The Thunder were getting the worst of both worlds as Westbrook was playing without thought and without talent, which is exactly the type of play that has led to terrible Thunder losses. Then, in came Eric Maynor. His contribution in the box score wasn't that amazing, with ten points and three assists to his name. But his contribution on the floor was superb. All of a sudden, the ball movement was flowing, and the Thunder were finding ways to score inside. By the fourth quarter, Maynor had taken the focus of the Nuggets defense off of the point guard position, allowing him to go inside for a few sweet points of his own. But, Eric Maynor is not perfect, and his run ended when Ty Lawson started heating up on the other end. Then, in came a level-headed Russell Westbrook, who was able to immediately step in and help get Durant going, after which he hit a clutch jumper at the end of the game that nearly sealed it. I don't think there will be "start Maynor" movements anytime soon, but it's nice to know we have a reliable second option when Westbrook just becomes too much of a liability.
Below: Great Interior Defense, Mozgov's Injury, Fouls, Improvement Areas Going Into the Playoffs, Positive Aspects of the Game, Awards!
Another huge part of the win was the Thunder's great interior defense, as pointed out by Dogburt in the gamethread. Nene was held to below his average, and Kevin Martin was generally limited to jumpshots, even though he did score better than his average. More telling are the rebound numbers. The Thunder won the overall rebounding battle by 9, and Perkins, Ibaka, and Durant had 14, 11, and 9 rebounds respectively. Heck, Perkins had the highest rebounding total for him all season.
But even this was fortunate to fall on the Thunder's side, as Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov went down early in the first quarter, severely limiting the Nuggets' size. They were already missing Chris Andersen, who is day-to-day with a sprained right ankle. They did use backup big man Kosta Koufos, but he played some atrocious basketball (missing two jumpers and letting Nick Collison set up two threes), so he was benched after two minutes.
Fouls were also a factor as Thunder players like Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, and Nick Collison got into early trouble, which led them to play really light defense. This got the Nuggets some easy points they probably should have had to fight for.
I know it seems like this recap is focusing on a lot of the negative aspects of the game, but there's a reason for that. The Thunder played extremely hard tonight, but they won the game because of excruciating circumstances. I'm not saying that they can't beat the Nuggets again or that we should all panic because the Thunder aren't playing very well. What I am saying though is that the Thunder need to improve on some aspects of their game before they enter the playoffs. They need to find an offensive identity in the second half. They need to keep a cool head throughout the game, and stop getting dumb technicals. On that same line, they also need to stop getting stupid turnovers like traveling, three-in-the-key, and offensive foul calls. They also need to find a way for Harden to become a reliable offensive option, not an off-and-on streaky shooter. They need to keep out of foul trouble. Yes, this is a big list, but if all of these same problems continue to factor into the Thunder's game, they become a much more one-dimensional team that has exploitable holes. Thus, I'm hoping that the Thunder can use these final five games as a learning experience, rather than a chilling period for their star players.
But, I won't end on such a sour note. The Thunder truly did play a hard game of basketball tonight, full of heart and passion. They had big holes, but they did the little things at the right times in order to win. You can play what if scenarios all day, but the Thunder used the cards they were dealt with, and kept the team that they might face in the playoffs at arms length throughout all of the fourth quarter, and were able to seal the game in excellent fashion. Though the phrase is overused, I'm going to say it: That's Thunder Basketball.
Thunder Wonder: Eric Maynor, 10 Points, 3 Assists, +11 +/- Ratio
Thunder Down Under: Kevin Durant, 35 Points, 9 Rebounds, 1 Assists, 1 Block
Thunder Blunder: Russell Westbrook, for a terrible third quarter.
Thunder Plunderer: Ty Lawson, 28 Points, 5 Assists
Next Game: Versus the Los Angeles Clippers, Wednesday, April 6th, 7 PM Central Daylight Time.