Monday, April 18, 2011
Thunder's win par for playoff course
By John Hollinger
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Call this one a microcosm of the first weekend of the NBA playoffs. Oklahoma City's 107-103 win over Denver in Game 1 of their Western Conference first-round series reflected all the major themes from the other seven games.
A home team struggling? Check. Oklahoma City fell behind by 13 points in the first quarter, as a scorching Nuggets squad made its first seven shots, and trailed in the final 70 seconds before hanging on for the win. While five home teams won this weekend, none did so by more than eight points and all five were seriously threatened late in the fourth quarter.
A superstar performance? Oh, yes. Kevin Durant set a playoff career-high with 41 points. In particular he blew up at the end of the third quarter, with three 3-pointers, a basket-and-one, and an assist on an Eric Maynor triple to account for the final 15 Thunder points of the quarter; that stretch turned a three-point deficit into a four-point lead. On a weekend where Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul all posted video-game numbers, Durant made his own strong case for Player of the Weekend.
Controversial officiating? Check. The Thunder went ahead on a tip-in by Kendrick Perkins that should never have been allowed, as Russell Westbrook's shot was still clearly in the cylinder when he batted it in. The Nuggets also were hurt by referee Bill Kennedy's continued unilateral enforcement of the "respect for the game" rule, as he nailed Raymond Felton with a fourth-quarter T that left the gang of courtside reporters just feet away from him mystified.
The blown interference call hurt, obviously, but the Nuggets also left everyone wondering about their offensive execution in the final minutes. For 45 minutes this was a spectacular game that featured brilliant shot-making and high intensity from both sides; the first half, in particular, was the best 24 minutes of basketball I've seen this year.
The last three minutes, however, were pure keystone cops. The one legitimately earned basket in that stretch was a midrange jumper by Russell Westbrook that barely rolled in with 22 seconds to play, putting the Thunder up by 3.
The other Thunder trips? A missed Serge Ibaka jumper (one of several on the night); a missed force by Westbrook; a pass thrown by Westbrook directly to Nene under the rim, which would have been a sweet look had they been on the same team; another miss by Westbrook, albeit on a better look; and the ill-gotten bucket on Perkins' bogus tip-in.
Denver, alas, couldn't take advantage because of its own misfires on a string of five straight empty trips. Two missed floaters by Raymond Felton, a dribble off Danilo Gallinari's foot of bounds, a baffling long jumper from Kenyon Martin, and an even more absurd long 3 by Felton assured the Nuggets' demise.
The Nuggets may rue two tactical decisions in particular. The first was leaving Martin in the game rather than re-inserting Wilson Chandler during an obvious offense-defense situation after Denver fell behind by a point with 1:05 left. Chandler hadn't played since the 10 minute mark but is a much better outside shooter than Martin; when the ball kicked out to Martin he missed badly from 21 feet.
The second was running so much offense through Felton rather than Ty Lawson in the closing stretch, even though Lawson was seeming to have an easier time carving up the Thunder defense. Nuggets coach George Karl did say the final, wild 3 by Felton was supposed to be a play for Lawson but the Thunder denied him; still, three other plays ran through Felton and yielded empty trips.
For all those shortcomings, however, Denver can walk away feeling good in a lot of other ways. Durant and Westbrook combined for 72 points, the Nuggets missed 12 foul shots and shot 4-of-16 on 3s, and defensive ace Arron Afflalo -- who might prove even more useful against Westbrook than against Durant -- didn't play; despite that, Denver lost by four on the road. That's a pretty respectable result.
Nonetheless, the best-of-seven playoff format makes the half-empty view the more persuasive one. With only four chances to steal one game -- at least -- and one-quarter of them now gone, Denver may rue the chances it had down the stretch of this one.
They had a blown call go against them, and it was a huge factor. But ultimately, those five straight empty trips -- and, to spin it equally the other way, the five straight stops by a newly toughened Thunder defense -- are the more obvious reason Oklahoma City walked away the winner.