The NBA playoffs are here.
First, as a general observation, the big NBA talking heads have been speaking of this year's pro tournament as if it could be something very special. Since we live in 2011 and all of us tend to fall into a delicate balance of hyperbole and cynicism on a regular basis (and often at the same time), it would be forgivable for us to think that we may be setting ourselves up for a bit of disappointment. And yet, if you look across this weekend's box scores, it is easy to see that the first weekend of the playoffs satisfied even the most jaded among us.
And so we have exhibit entry number one in the highly touted series between the Thunder and Nuggets.
I am still feeling the energy of last night's game, even hours after the fact. Looking at a wall of blue as the Thunder fans circled the court, it was easy to see how Loud City was about to live up to its name. From the opening tip, it quickly became evident that this game would not be a replay of the past two Thunder wins.
The most notable difference early on is that the Nuggets were much more committed to playing their own pace in the first quarter. Running out to an early double digit lead, Denver began to do to the Thunder what we've seen them do to everyone else. Their guards Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton were pressing the action, getting the ball out in transition, and finding their open shooters. A fast start and a 7-7 open shooting sequence for the Nuggets put the Thunder on their heels and made us all wonder if the past two games were but a fluke. The Thunder start was eerily reminiscent of many of the Thunder's games in the first third of the season.
Even so, as we've written here before, NBA teams cannot knock out the other team in the 1st quarter. There is simply too much time, the game moves at too fast a pace, and the players are too talented to sign off on a game early. The theme in my head was simply, "if the Thunder get it under 10, then this fast Denver start is no big deal." Little by little, the Thunder began to get their own offense going. They were still not nearly as sharp as Denver was, but guys slowly began to take and make better shots.
As the game melted from the 3rd quarter into the 4th, what became more and more apparent was the philosophy each team is going to employ late in the games. This facet - the team vs the star - has been discussed extensively, and now we were watching itself play out. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook carried the Thunder offense for the majority of the half, while Denver continued to run its high screens with Nene to remarkable effect. The Thunder would surge ahead, taking an eight point lead in the 4th, only to be quickly countered by a nine point run by the Nuggets. Which method would work? Execution or star play?
And so it was. With the game in the balance and the Nuggets hanging onto a one point lead, Durant continued to work himself into the offense and hit a 15 foot leaner to give the Thunder back the lead 100-99. Denver responded with a Gallinari jump shot to retake the lead, but his shot proved to be the last good offensive sequence for the Nuggets. To the Thunder's good fortune, the referees missed an offensive interference by Kendrick Perkins, awarding him with a tip in that gave the lead for good to the Thunder. Denver could not respond on the other end, and struggled to get a decent shot in the next two trips. Felton forced a bad 3-point attempt, and Kenyon Martin had to force a long 2-pointer. Thunder kept putting the ball in the hands of their two stars, and to their credit, Durant and Westbrook delivered.
Did the Nuggets take their best shot in game one and miss? I don't think so; they still have room for improvement. However, I do think that they threw a solid first shot, and the Thunder responded with an effective counter-punch. OKC demonstrated great resolve amidst high pressure, and such a stature bodes well for their chances in the rest of the series.
Bring on Game Two.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 41 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, 31 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds, 1 steal
Thunder Blunder: Serge Ibaka, 3 points on only 1-8 shooting, 5 rebounds
Thunder Plunderer: Nene, 22 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals
Next Game: Versus the Denver Nuggets, Wednesday, April 20th at 7:00 PM CST