No team in NBA history has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. That's excellent news for Thunder fans, as the Thunder have taken a 3-0 series lead on the Nuggets.
But, before we start celebrating, an issue must be addressed. Our complete collapse in the fourth quarter, which gave the Nuggets an opportunity to tie the game in the final seconds after being down 8 points with 41 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
How did it happen? (Video Link.) Well, it started with one bad play. The Thunder were up by 8, and only needed to get fouled in order to secure the victory. Kendrick Perkins saw an open KD down the floor, and lobbed it to him for what was to be an easy layup. The pass ended up going out of bounds on the other side of the floor, giving the Nuggets possession. Aaron Affalo was fouled and made one of two, and then Nene rebounded it and made one of two. Nuggets down by six, 38 seconds to go. Ball inbounded to KD, he gets fouled, makes one of two. Nuggets rebound, call a timeout. J.R. Smith makes a deep three, Nuggets down by four, 23 seconds to go. Russell Westbrook gets fouled, chokes both free throws. J.R. Smith makes another three, and the Thunder immediately throw it to Ibaka for a fast break dunk. Nuggets down by three, 10 seconds to go. J.R. Smith misses a heavily contested three, and the Thunder squeak out with a victory.
We can blame the near loss on three things: 1. The bad inbounds pass by Perk. 2. The choked freethrows by KD and Russ. 3. The unlimited range of J.R. Smith.
Now, before we analyze that, let's take a look at another fourth quarter collapse that the Thunder have endured. This one was on March 29th, against the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors are down six, with 13 seconds to go. Monta Ellis looks for the ball near Dorrell wright, the inbounder. But Reggie Williams popped out of the baseline to get wide open for a three on the wing. Splash. The Thunder are up by three, with 11 seconds to go. Then, Daequan Cook lobs a pass way over Kevin Durant, and it goes straight to Monta Ellis, who is left wide open for a corner three. Tie game, six seconds to go. The Thunder would win in overtime.
We can blame that loss on two things: 1. The bad inbounds pass by Cook. 2. The bad perimeter defense by Sefolosha on Williams. 3. Not recovering from the shock of the inbounds pass.
But, in many senses of the word, both of those plays started with a bad inbounds pass. Sure, our perimeter defense could use some improvement, but as long as there wasn't a stupid play that started the chain of dominoes, the whole situation wouldn't have happened.
However, sometimes, things like that just happen. So the team has to figure out how to stop the chain of dominoes once and for all. They've failed to stop the dominoes before, as evidenced on March 20th against the Raptors. (Credit to Dogburt for suggesting I look at this particular instance.)
There, the Thunder were winning by three with 41 seconds to go, and the Raptors had the ball. The Raptors put their two bigs at the freethrow line, and had DeRozan run between them to the perimeter. James Harden couldn't get through the wall, and the Raptors got an open three to tie things up. In the final play, the Thunder would try to trap Jarrett Jack on the perimeter, Unfortunately, the help defender was Kendrick Perkins, leaving Durant all alone in the lane to contest Amir Johnson for a layup. The shot went in, and the Raptors would win the game, 95-93.
Fortunately, the Thunder learned their mistakes from that game and from the Warriors game when they played the Nuggets tonight, and needed to make sure the Nuggets didn't hit a three on their final possession. Both of J.R. Smith's made threes at the end of the game were heavily contested, and you can really only attribute them to his great talent. Thus, on the final play, the Thunder made sure J.R. Smith was smothered....but they didn't trap him. They didn't fall for any picks or misdirections. They just had man-to-man coverage all the way. Furthermore, James Harden made sure to put all of his body on J.R. Smith, but none of his hands, making for one of the most difficult shots in basketball. Of course, some will contend that Harden did foul Smith, but even if it was a foul, one has to admit that it was also excellent, tough nosed defense.
Thus, while some say that the Thunder "nearly blew" this game, I prefer to think differently. The Thunder saw their mistake, and looked at what they needed to do in order to win on each successive possession. Westbrook and Durant both got to the line, which is what they needed to do. They missed three, so the Thunder knew they probably shouldn't rely on the line to get them points when they were up by 1. Thus, they threw it down the court to Ibaka for easy points, and played some excellent defense on J.R. Smith.
As for the rest of the game, it was also very well played by the Thunder. The Nuggets had all of the intangibles on their side, and the Thunder found ways to score in the middle of a draught, dig themselves out of holes, shut down scorers, and straight up will their team to victory.
A huge part of the victory was Serge Ibaka, who emerged as our third scorer tonight and then some. What impressed me about his game tonight is that he showed Thunder fans aspects of his game that we haven't seen before. He got offensive rebounds and kept trying at his shot, when he usually just makes open layups or dunks. He also showed the he knows how to get fouled and sent to the line. In fact, his ten attempts tonight were a career high for him, and would have accounted for 5.4% of his attempts all season. That's nothing to sneeze at. All in all, as Coach Brooks lets Ibaka do more things on the floor, he only looks more and more brilliant.
Of course, due credit also must be given to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, our other two scorers. Westbrook didn't really resort to the boneheaded plays of post games, and kept a cool head. Durant was limited by some nice Nugget defense, but his six assists speak volumes about his ability and willingness to make the extra pass for the efficient score. Perkins was also excellent on defense, and Harden had his moments.
There should also be some credit given to the Nuggets, who really give a new meaning to team basketball. While the Thunder would always do simple plays for their best scorers, the Nuggets would often have possessions where the ball went through the hands of four or five guys before the ball was actually shot. The plays looked stupid at first, but they came off looking brilliant when guys would be given wide open shots or one-on-one post layups. The Nuggets only really failed when they had to rely on one guy to drive in the lane and score, because they just don't have the talent to do that in the clutch.
Okay, I think that's enough rambling for now. Go on and celebrate, have a most excellent Easter, and get ready for Game 4!
Thunder Wonder: Serge Ibaka, 22 Points, 16 Rebounds, 4 Blocks.
Thunder Down Under: Russell Westbrook, 23 Points, 9 Rebounds, 8 Assists.
Thunder Blunder: Eric Maynor, for trying too hard to be Russell Westbrook.
Thunder Plunderer: J.R. Smith, for his incredibly clutch three point plays at the end of the game.
Next Game: At the Denver Nuggets, Monday, April 25th, 9:30 PM Central Daylight Time.