Here is a litmus test for you, the Thunder faithful. If you didn't know who had won the game and I told you that Nate Robinson made an appearance, what would you think?
Yes, there Nate-dog was, bouncing around on the court with under two minutes to go, and if you're an optimist like I am (not), you would have presumed correctly that the Thunder had the game in hand. In what will go down as a game that was both dominant and uneven, the Thunder once again did a great job controlling the pace and complexion of the game in handing the Nuggets their second loss of the week. If there is such a thing as momentum against a specific team, I think the Thunder have it.
The outstanding question on my and I'm sure on other peoples minds is, were the Nuggets holding back, or did the Thunder just take the fight out of them?
It is well known now that there are still different match-ups in the air that both the Thunder and the Nuggets can play their way into, depending on who wins and who loses the rest of the season. People have speculated that the Nuggets would be much better off playing the Mavericks rather than the Thunder in the first round, due to how OKC has played. To do so, the Nuggets would have to either fall to the six seed or the Mavericks would have to fall to the four seed. So at least for a week, I'm sure there will be people who question what kind of effort the Nuggets put forth, especially if that seeding does take place.
I think however that last night was more about how the Nuggets have been playing hard and fast for a solid month, and without a full bench at their disposal, simply did not have the horses to keep up with the Thunder. In a funny way though, it is not because the game is played at such a high pace. Rather, it is because it was played at a physical pace. Once again, the Thunder was able to completely dictate the complexion of the game. They controlled the boards, limited the Nuggets' opportunities to run (only eight fast break points), and limited the Nuggets' aggression to a few small pockets within the game.
I was surprised at how slowly both teams started out, finishing the 1st quarter tied at 17. I thought for sure that the Nuggets would come out with the same look from Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton, constantly pushing the ball whenever they wanted to. However, Lawson had a much more subdued game (five points, six assists) and the Thunder did a good job keeping him out of the lane. By contrast, Russell Westbrook showed excellent patience early on. One of the things that Westbrook has struggled to learn is the overall tenor and complexion of the game, so has not always asserted himself in the best way at the best time. However, last night was an exception to that struggle. He saw that his team was struggling, so Westbrook went to work and pushed his own game. Despite the rocky overall start by the Thunder, by mid-way through the 2nd quarter Westbrook had the team in good control of the game. At the half, Westbrook had four assists against zero turnovers, which was a ratio everyone should be delighted to see.
If not for a brief let-up during the final two minutes of the 2nd quarter, the Thunder should have been more firmly in control. They saw a 16 point lead quickly fall to six points, in part because once again, the team got a little too 3-point happy and the lead dwindled to six. Leading the charge of futility was Kevin Durant, who finished 0-4 from 3-point range.
In the 2nd, the Nuggets' shortcomings with their bench really revealed itself. Their offense was limited to brief spurts where it looked like they were on the verge of something only to see the Thunder correct themselves and push the lead to double-digits. Their best sequences were the results of Nene and Kenyon Martin getting offensive boards and kicking the ball out to open shooters. However, once again the Thunder did an excellent job closing out on the 3-point shots, holding the Nuggets to only 5-13 from 3-point range.
The Thunder generated just enough offense to keep themselves moving along, but again it was the defense that excelled. Nene seemed like he had some good offense going early on, but did not get most of his points until late in the game when it was all but decided. I think that his offensive statistics will be skewed in this way; he finished with 18 and nine rebounds, but most of those points came late. When the Thunder had to shut him down, they did. He is going to continue to have trouble getting points with Kendrick Perkins pushing him all night long, and I'm not sure how the Nuggets will correct this problem.
One final joy for me - once again I enjoyed watching Kevin Durant show some aggressiveness on offense. As noted, he got a bit 3-point happy in the first half, but in the 2nd was much more assertive in taking the ball to the rim. It seems like, every time he is matched up against Danilo Gallinari, Durant took the ball hard to the rim and got layups, dunks, and free throws out of it. I love that kind of recognition.
If the Nuggets are the team that the Thunder will see in two weeks, I think these last two games should give the fans hope. That said, I also am eager to see what adjustments George Karl makes to give them a better chance to score. The Thunder seem to have solved the Nuggets offense, and that, for us, is a great thing to see.
Thunder Wonder: Kevin Durant, 28 Points, 2 Assists, 7 rebounds, 2 steals
Thunder Down Under: Nick Collison, 8 offensive rebounds
Thunder Blunder: Serge Ibaka, 5 points on 1-7 shooting
Thunder Plunderer: Nene, 18 points, 9 rebounds, 1 block
Next Game: at the Los Angeles Lakers, Sunday, April 10th, 8:30 PM Central Daylight Time.