The Thunder’s up three games to none over Denver. They walked into an incredibly hostile place and pulled out an unbelievably gritty win to put themselves in an excellent position to finish this series and move on to the second round.
But, whoa boy, it did not come easy.
(Remember, the Thunder won the game. They’re up 3-0. Remember that.)
Oklahoma City did a pretty admirable job of withstanding a barrage of Denver free throws in the third quarter which left the Nuggets with a 73-71 lead heading into the fourth. The Nuggets had every drop of momentum at that point, and looked to be charging their way to a big, series-lengthening win.
The Thunder didn’t execute by any means, but behind four straight stops and holding Denver without a bucket for almost five minutes, OKC stretched out to a comfortable lead late in the game. Russell Westbrook dropped a big shot. The Thunder dominated the glass. It was a textbook close for a team on the road.
And then Kendrick Perkins decided he wanted to throw a pretty stupid pass.
With 40 seconds left and the Thunder ahead by eight, Perk attempted to find Serge Ibaka with a full-court heave that fell innocently out of bounds. The Nuggets had life. After a couple missed free throws and a couple J.R. Smith 3-pointers, the Thunder found themselves only ahead by three, 97-94, with 10.5 seconds left and the Nuggets in possession.
Whoa. Boy. It all happened in such a whirl that it was almost like it didn't happen. How did a game go from 10 to three just like that? Could the Thunder really erase all that hard work in just a few seconds?
The ball would find Smith once again, and he tried to get James Harden to bite on a pump before going up for the shot. I'm sure, depending on which way your colors fall, you saw the play a different way. Smith clearly wanted the foul. The 20,000 people in the Pepsi Center were looking for it. But ref Derrick Stafford was having none of it. (You be the judge on it .)
Point is, the Thunder tried to completely crap away an incredible playoff win. They didn’t though. They’re still up 3-0 and in position to close this out Monday night. And the reasons they're winning are stops and rebounding. They've executed those two things superbly.
Offensively, both Westbrook and Kevin Durant never got entirely on track; going a combined 13-37 for 49 points. Much like Game 2, though, the Thunder found life in one of the oft overlooked role players. This time it was Serge Ibaka stepping up with 22 huge points, 16 even huger rebounds and four bigger than huge blocks.
The Nuggets shot just 37 percent, but OKC was actually worse, shooting 36 percent. The game came down to free throws, where Denver blew 15 of them. What reared its ugly head again for the Nuggets, though, was the lack of a go-to scorer late in the game. They went five minutes without a basket late in the fourth and looked entirely lost. A fair bit of that can be credited to the Thunder's ability to guard, though.
Sans the last 40 seconds, OKC’s defense in the fourth quarter was pretty much unreal. The Nuggets had no idea where to go with the ball and couldn’t find even an inch of open floor for a clean look. The Thunder weren’t scoring much either, but it was a point here, a basket there and before you knew it, OKC had taken a two point lead to eight. And, so we thought, locked up the game.
Obviously, OKC didn’t get the memo this morning that NBA games do, in fact, last 48 minutes and not 47. I think the Thunder mentally checked out with 45 seconds left and started the party a bit early.
All that doesn’t matter, though. In the end, all it changes is how people like me have to recap the game. Because the Thunder’s up three games to none. They could’ve won 2-0 on a Kendrick Perkins’ fadeaway jumper and all that matters is that they had more points than Denver. In the NBA Playoffs, it’s about surviving these situations, and the Thunder stepped up in a scary moment, at a scary place, and against a completely desperate team.
The Nuggets knew Saturday night was pretty much do or die. They were the wounded dog trying to fight for it's life. That’s a tough environment to win in, especially for a young group that had never done such a thing. But OKC rose to the challenge and put the Nuggets away, and maybe the series, with defense.