DENVER – It was fitting that, on this day of fantastic finishes, we nearly had one so amazing it would have put the others to shame. The Oklahoma City Thunder had a 10-point lead with 44 seconds left and nearly saw it vanish into thin air, with an assortment of mistakes handing the Denver Nuggets a chance to tie the game. But when James Harden bottled up J.R. Smith’s last-ditch attempt to tie the game with a 3-pointer, the young Thunder had scuffled their way to another landmark milestone.
By defeating the Nuggets 97-94, Oklahoma City earned the franchise’s first road win since moving to the plains. Most likely, it will earn the Thunder their first series win since relocation, too, as they have a 3-0 lead on the Nuggets in the best-of-seven series. No team has ever come back from such a deficit.
“A win is a win,” said the Thunder’s Kevin Durant, who scored a game-high 26 points. “Especially a great team like this, on their home floor, it speaks a lot about our team, how tough we are, and our resilience.”
The Thunder didn’t do it without showing their youth first. Oklahoma City was up 10, 94-84, after a pair of Durant free throws with 49 seconds left, but allowed Raymond Felton to race the length of the court for a layup in five seconds.
Then Kendrick Perkins attempted a full-court TD pass to Serge Ibaka but overthrew it so badly that Usain Bolt couldn’t have caught it; when it finally landed someplace near Kansas, the turnover gave the Nuggets possession under the basket. A quick play for Afflalo earned a foul within three seconds; when he missed the second shot, Nene got the rebound and spit another pair of free throws.
Another bad play by Oklahoma City left Durant pinned against the midcourt line with two Nuggets surrounding him, but he was bailed out by an official’s reflex foul call when the Nuggets weren’t trying to foul. He made only one of two, however, and J.R. Smith hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to four. Then Russell Westbrook missed two foul shots, and Smith made another 3 to make it a one-point game with 14 seconds left.
After Serge Ibaka broke out for a dunk, the Nuggets had 10 seconds left to tie with a 3-pointer. But the Thunder smothered the play for Smith, who missed badly and argued in vain for a foul -- as did an enraged Denver crowd. I should point out that Smith, as a 73.8 percent shooter, only had a 40.2 percent chance of tying the game even if he got the call; if you take overtime as a 50-50 proposition, there was still a 4-in-5 chance the Thunder won even if he got the whistle.
That dovetails neatly with the other story from Saturday night, and the real lament for the Nuggets in this one -- all the free throws Denver missed when it did get the whistle. The Nuggets were erratic offensively but earned 45 free throw attempts; unfortunately, they made only 30. Along with 6-of-23 3-point shooting, that doomed Denver to an off night offensively and, most likely, an early exit from the postseason. It probably didn’t help that their best shooter, Danilo Gallinari, was slowed by an Achilles problem that cropped up in practice on Friday; he finished 1-for-6 with six points.
Nonetheless, the bigger story from Saturday night was the next step in the progression of the young Thunder, especially given the rather scary fact that 81 of their 97 points came from players aged 22 or younger.
Saturday night the star was the 21-year-old Ibaka, who tied a career high with 22 points, grabbed 16 boards and dominated defensively with his shot-blocking and quick rotations. He had four of the Thunder’s nine rejections, helping the Thunder hold Denver to 37.2 percent shooting.
“Serge was terrific,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He’s a very aggressive player, his midrange shot is probably the best on our team, he rebounds and protects the basket. The great thing I like about him is he comes back hungry every day. ... This year he came back not satisfied with what he did last year. I thought he improved every month of the season.”
Combined with the 26 from 22-year-old Durant, 23 from 22-year-old Westbrook and 10 from 21-year-old Harden, the Thunder got nearly all their production from players who are still several years from their peak. Add in the heavy bench contributions this series from 23-year-olds Eric Maynor and Daequan Cook, and this team’s future looks blindingly bright.
That future begins now, it seems. With the Thunder one step away from the second round of the playoffs, and a potential home-court advantage awaiting them should Memphis defeat San Antonio, it appears -- youthful mistakes and all – these kids are ready for a deep playoff run. It may have been a day of fantastic finishes, but the really fantastic part here is that a group that was 3-29 a little over two years ago can realistically discuss making the conference finals.