DENVER, CO - APRIL 23: Kenyon Martin #4 of the Denver Nuggets sits frustrated on the sidelines during a 97-94 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at Pepsi Center on April 23, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
One of these days, an NBA team will recover from an 0-3 deficit and win a playoff series. Unfortunately, this incarnation of the Denver Nuggets isn't that team nor does it have the fan base necessary to pull off such a historic feat.
Before many of you demand that I dust off firegeorgekarl.com, just remember that George Karl doesn't shoot free throws. Given that the Nuggets were close for much of Game 3, one could argue that Coach Karl put the Nuggets in a position to win the game. The players just couldn't execute, especially at the free throw line where they missed 15 freebies. 15!
But the missed free throws don't tell the whole story of Game 3, nor is Coach Karl off the hook.
For the second consecutive game in this woeful series, the Nuggets allowed the Thunder to control the energy and pace of the game. Even when Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups played here, the Nuggets were an awful half-court team. But without Melo and Billups, the Nuggets are a horrendous half-court team. So once the fast break is taken away from Denver - as Oklahoma City successfully did on Saturday night - the Nuggets become an impotent basketball team. That impotence leads to a lack of ball movement, stuck-in-mud defense and forced, tough shots with the shot clock winding down. The Nuggets' 37.2% field goal and 26.1% three-point shooting is all you really need to know about how they play in a half-court, slow-me-down game.
The Thunder didn't shoot well, either (36.2% from the field and 28.6% from three-point range to be exact), but they're good enough defensively and disciplined enough on both ends to overcome a bad shooting night...on the road, no less. That's what great teams do.
My fellow Stiffs, I fear that we're witnessing the evolution of a great team before our very eyes and unfortunately it's not the one that has "Nuggets" on the front of their jerseys. It seems as though our pesky, upstart, once lovable Nuggets are merely going to be the first victim as this Thunder squad rolls through the 2011 post-season eating up the competition in its wake. Looking at the Thunder objectively (as I believe we can now that we're down 0-3), they have all the makings of a championship team. Two superstars? Check. Size? Check. Depth? Check. Good role players? Check. Role players who can make big shots? Check. Good coaching? Check. Ability to protect the rim? Check. In fact, if the Nuggets were to play the Thunder 100 times I think we'd lose about 85 of them.
A box score reader might see that the Nuggets only lost by three, but the game wasn't really that close. The Thunder calmly, coolly and collectively controlled Game 3, even though the two teams were statistically very similar in virtually every category. Those that were there never got the sense that the Nuggets would pull out the victory, evident by the thousands of (bandwagon, shameful, asshole) fans who exited the arena with 2:28 left in the game and the Nuggets down just eight points. A true basketball fan knows that anything can happen with 2:28 remaining and an eight-point deficit, but Denver is clearly devoid of true basketball fans who can afford to be at Pepsi Center for a playoff game.
Moreover, it was funny based on the texts I received throughout the game from fans watching on TV that the game felt quite different in-person than it did through the tube. For example, those who were there didn't think James Harden fouled J.R. Smith on his game-ending three-point attempt (and believe me, I asked everyone at Blue Sky Grill that I could find if that was a foul or not and the consensus was "no"). And yet those who watched it on TV insist that it was a foul based on the texts I received post-game.
I suspect there were other things noticed in-person that the TV broadcast may have missed, so without further adieu let's get to tonight's depressing version of The View From the Not-So-Cheap Seats...
...instead of rewarding their fans with T-shirts, the Nuggets went cheap and had Anthony's Pizza-sponsored powder blue towels on all the seats. The arena public address announcer had to beg the fans throughout the game to wave the towels and many fans begrudgingly did. It was embarrassing. Denver just isn't a "towel culture" and why we try to emulate red neck cities who wave towels is beyond me. Can't we come up with something original for Denver?
...despite the stupid towels, the team introductions had a good feel to it. And just before tip-off, J.R. Smith collected all the bench players for a rallying huddle. The bench was amped. It wouldn't last long, however.
...when Arron Afflalo made his first three shots (two were three-pointers) the crowd noise was deafening.
...I liked the Nuggets interior passing among the big men early, but said passing disappeared the entire second half.
...Karl had J.R. on a short leash in the first half and when J.R. got yanked after just a few minutes of playing time, he sulked on the bench and couldn't be bothered to look down the court at the action in the game.
...Karl's rotations felt very sporadic, as if he was trying to test out every possible combination of Nuggets players except for Gary Forbes and Kosta Koufos. It's unclear if the players didn't deliver for Karl forcing him to continue the substitutions or if the many substitutions themselves disrupted any rhythm the Nuggets could have had. Regardless, Karl appeared exasperated as nothing seemed to work lineup-wise. He seemed to settle on a lineup of "trust guys" in Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, Nene, K-Mart and Afflalo, but they weren't able to get anything going either.
...Afflalo's "clear path foul" call on Harden and the subsequent replay review at the 7:58 mark in the second quarter really killed the crowd's enthusiasm for the remainder of the first half.
...Serge Ibaka just killed us. Game 3 was his coming out party: 22 points, 16 rebounds (six offensive), four blocks and great defense. Ibaka is like an athletic Horace Grant, another reason why I think the Thunder could be NBA Finals bound.
...the crowd was pretty depressed early in the second half until they announced the presence of Avalanche legend Joe Sakic, at which point the crowd erupted. Knowing this, the Nuggets should have had John Elway, Terrell Davis, Patrick Roy, Larry Walker, Alex English, David Thompson, Shannon Sharpe, Peter Forsberg, Rod Smith and Dikembe Mutombo present, because most of the crowd's enthusiasm stunk.
...even though J.R. only had 14 minutes, it seemed as though Karl gave him ample playing time from the late third quarter through the first four minutes of the fourth quarter, and J.R. disappointed. Channeling John Starks in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals, J.R. missed six straight shots and was harder on himself than Karl will be. Frankly, it was heartbreaking to watch in person. Here was Karl giving J.R. time to shine, and J.R. just couldn't hit a shot. That said, while on the court - alongside Chris Andersen who had a great game - J.R. and Birdman were able to rally the Nuggets to a three-point lead, proof that they are Denver's best energy guys. But J.R. got pulled at the 8:00 mark in the fourth for Afflalo (to be clear, I'd have done the same with the way J.R. was shooting and the shots he was taking) and wouldn't return until the Nuggets got really desperate at the very end.
...Denver Stiffs reader "Mordecai", who sits directly behind the visitors bench, got to sit next to Sonicsgate Director/Producer Jason Reid throughout the game (you probably saw them on TV, Reid was holding the Seattle Supersonics banner behind the Thunder bench all night) and they barked at the Thunder all night. Eventually, Durant responded by snapping back at them "watch this!" implying that he'd make some big shots or something. Instead, Mordecai and Reid's heckling led to Durant forcing things and getting a technical foul, a possible momentum shift in the game. It was awesome. Just further proof of what a true fan base can do in a home game.
...throughout the game, Forbes tried to rally the fans to stand up and cheer only to be rebutted on each occasion. Forbes would just shrug his shoulders with disappointment as he should be. The fans were terrible.
...as always, this game had some very suspect non-calls, but none more so than Ibaka's would-be foul on K-Mart followed by Kendrick Perkins' shove of Nene in the fourth quarter.
...the Nuggets were stuck on 78 points from 7:08 to 3:34 in the final period and didn't make a field goal until 1:42 left. The Thunder defense was just stifling.
...remember that whole "we don't need a superstar to win" theory? I believe that's been proven wrong at this point.
...as mentioned above, Pepsi Center started emptying at the 2:28 mark with the Nuggets down eight. As a Nuggets fan, I was humiliated. Forbes again looked up to see people leaving and he had a "what the fuck?!" look on his face, as if he ran downstairs on Christmas morning only to find that there were no presents under the tree. How people could leave on a Saturday night with 2:28 to go is beyond me. Those who left should be ashamed and I'm proud of the few thousand who stayed to cheer the Nuggets to the very end. All I know is that if all the readers of this site could have been there, no one would have left.
...the silver lining of the fans departure meant that I got to watch the last two minutes from about three rows above the Nuggets bench. And what a thrilling last two minutes it was! Many will argue (as will I) that J.R. should have been re-inserted sooner, as upon entry into the game he canned two amazing three-pointers to get the game within one point. J.R. finished with a +/- of +14 by the way, I'm just sayin'.
...watching K-Mart up close, I'm going to insist the Nuggets re-sign him. No one wanted this game more than K-Mart and no one seemed more heartbroken than #4 as the game got out of hand in favor of the Thunder at the end. He was mad at himself for not delivering a better game and you could see it all over his face.
...I won't make any friends with this statement, but James Harden didn't foul J.R. Smith on the final three-point shot. I've watched it on replay many times since, and it still doesn't look like a foul to me. Sorry, folks. One thing not being talked about with this game-ending sequence is the fact that Lawson missed a key screen that he was supposed to set on Harden (watch the video if you don't believe me). By not screening Harden, J.R. was stuck in no man's land behind that three-point line. Of course, it would have been nice for the Nuggets to have a back-up plan for Afflalo to take the three-pointer if J.R. wasn't open.
...down 0-3, the Nuggets could be the first team in NBA history to erase an 0-3 deficit and win a playoff series. Unfortunately, I don't believe this team has the mental toughness nor the talent to pull off such a historical feat. It will happen some day, but not with this roster against the roster possessed by the Thunder.
Non-Stiff of the Night
-Serge Ibaka: As noted above, Ibaka killed us. Many say that Perkins is overrated and he may be, but his presence has made Ibaka dangerously better and the Nuggets had no answer for Ibaka in Game 3.
Stiff of the Night
-The ex-Knicks: Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Al Harrington had a forgettable game, combining for 5-21 shooting. Their body language sucked on the bench, too, particularly Gallo who, when he got pulled early in the second half (never to return), he spent the rest of the game sulking at the end of the bench a la J.R. Smith.
Seeing Jason Reid - a lifelong Sonics fan - decked out in a retro Gary Payton jersey and screaming relentlessly at the Thunder bench for 48 minutes while Nuggets fans emptied out of Pepsi Center with 2:28 to go in an eight-point game (on a Saturday night!) was a startling, depressing contrast.
Look, I get that the Nuggets have been maddeningly disappointing in this series. They have lacked mental toughness. They have lacked a cohesive game plan from game to game. They haven't had anyone step up to lead. And Coach Karl still needs to prove that he can win home playoff games (Karl's home playoff record is now 2-10 against higher-seeded teams and 8-10 overall).
But that doesn't mean we as fans should abandon them now.
Not only do we have an NBA team in our great city, but we have a damn good team that won 50 games for the fourth consecutive season. The roster obviously has major gaps and will need changes, but we have a good foundation here from the top of the organization down through the last player on the roster.
They can't say that in Seattle anymore.
For Game 4 on Monday night, the least Nuggets fans can do is stay until the very end of the game and cheer this team on one more time (and, I'm afraid, it will be just one more time). Because if you're not the type of fan who can do that and think you have somewhere more important to be on a Monday night, I know thousands of readers here that will gladly take your tickets off your hands.