Game Three is tonight, and I think it is safe to presume that this game is going to represent the fulcrum of what this series is going to be. On the one end of the scale is a Thunder team, growing with confidence each time it beats the Nuggets in the month of April. On the other is the Nuggets, beaten and battered, wondering if the juice they need will be there to make this thing a series. If the Nuggets lose tonight, the outcome is all but assured. But if the Thunder slip up? Well then, things are about to get interesting.
In no particular order...
1. It looks like the Nuggets' collective psyche is staggering. This not to say that I don't think the Nuggets will come out emotionally charged tonight, but we're seeing some of the tell-tale signs of a team that is beginning to question its own resolve. And I think it has more to do with Game Two than Game One.
In Game One, as we know, Kevin Durant posted his best post-season performance in his young career and Russell Westbrook chipped in with several gun-slinging moments of his own. However, I think a team can generally dismiss such performances as statistical outliers. Durant isn't going to average 40 points per game. (As an aside, that type of average is such an extreme rarity that it is only accomplished by a select few, and only in specific points in their history.) A team can say, "since that doesn't happen often, we don't need to game plan it away."
However, Game Two was something else entirely. Yes, the Thunder got the quick jump, but over the course of the rest of the game their offense, as I described before, was at best "adequate." It just kept the Nuggets far enough away at arm's length so that they never mounted a serious challenge. More importantly though, the Thunder held the high-scoring Nuggets to only 45 second half points, one game after holding them to only 43 second half points. I think this should be the biggest concern for the Nuggets - their fast flowing offense is being completely bottled up.
All that said, I do feel that Denver has a rout lurking somewhere in them, and I would not at all be surprised if it happened tonight. In a season when they were pulling off multiple 30 point blowouts, such an offensive tidal wave is never far away. If it happens tonight, the Thunder's mantra about loss-recovery will be put to the ultimate test.
2. Arron Afflalo is apparently the second coming of Scottie Pippen. Requisite disclaimer: I like Afflalo. I think he adds a nice component to the Nuggets' scheme and he definitely can be a championship cog for their playoff endeavor. He's a lithe defender who can stay with his man (say, a Kevin Durant) through multiple screens. He also compliments the offense well with timely outside shooting. He reminds me a great deal of the Hornets' Trevor Ariza.
That said...I guess I was not formally put on notice that he is the 2011 version of Scottie Pippen. I know the Nuggets fanbase are excited that he'll be playing tonight, and they rightfully felt short-handed when he has been missing, but his abilities seem to be getting elevated to almost-mythical status. And I know all about player myth-building. I personally stand by my initial pre-series assertion - Afflalo is not going to give Kevin Durant much trouble at all. If he is moved over to guard Russell Westbrook, I have to say...is it wise to put such confidence in a guy who is coming off a weeks' long leg injury, and his first assignment is to try and check the honey badger?
I think it just seems strange that a team whose ethos in the second half of the season has been "two sets of starters" would suddenly believe that the absence of one player would mean so much. What happens if Afflalo makes no difference at all?
Scott Brooks, you have to challenge this belief they have in Afflalo, and if it breaks, so will the rest of them.
3. Beware the 3-point shot. What I mean is, this wayward mistress is the fastest way to kill the Thunder's mojo. They shot 30 of them in the last game. While I understand that it was mostly a function of playing with a big lead and trying to bleed a clock, I think that a repeat performance of that number would be detrimental to the winning experience.
If Denver starts hot and fast like I would expect them to, building an early lead, the 3-point shot is the easiest way to tempt a team into a recovery. However, as we've seen in games earlier this year, the Thunder are not a good 3-point shooting team when behind. They take way too many and they forget about all the other things they do well.
The biggest surprise this series to me has been Westbrook's willingness to take, and ability to make, the shot. He looks much more relaxed shooting it in this series, and I have no idea why. I do know that his shooting motion has changed, but I cannot pinpoint if it was only recently. While it may seem like he's tempting fate, I do have confidence that Westbrook exercises great discretion in the 3-point attempt. I'm much more concerned about Kevin Durant's willingness to hoist up double-digit attempts if his offensive game is not working. If that number balloons up into the 7-10 attempt range, I would have great cause for concern.
As they say though, talk is cheap (especially mine). I can't wait to see what happens tonight.