But with the Nuggets and their division rival Thunder duking it out basket-by-basket midway through the fourth quarter, and with both teams needing big-time performances from big-time players, the Nuggets stumbled and fumbled while the Thunder's "stars" Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook did what stars do to win NBA games: they made big shots and got to the free throw line.
Nuggets lose. Thunder now firmly control the fourth-seed entering the 2011 playoffs.
Was this just a fluke one-off bad game or a bad omen of things to come when these two teams hook up in the playoffs beginning April 16th?
I'd prefer to answer that question after Friday night's rematch, but a few things scared me about Tuesday night's defeat. One, Westbrook had a sub-par game overall and didn't log a lot of minutes and yet the Thunder won anyway. Two, Thunder sixth-man dynamo James Harden also had a sub-par game (he shot 2-7 from three-point range and missed half his free throws) and yet the Thunder won anyway. Three, Durant had a masterfully efficient game (32 points on just 21 shots) but he certainly didn't have a "big" game and yet the Thunder won anyway. And four, despite sub-par games from two of the Thunder's three best players the Nuggets couldn't take out their division rival at home. At home?!
Not discussed enough around here but sure to be done so more frequently is that we've discovered the 15-5 Nuggets' Achilles heel: free throw shooting. I suppose it's inevitable that after trading one of the best free throw shooters in the country away (Chauncey Billups - 89.8% this season) plus another damn good one who takes a lot of them (Carmelo Anthony - 87.5%) the overall percentage is destined to go down, but the new-look Nuggets are missing freebies in droves.
The Nuggets horrid free throw shooting almost cost them the Lakers game (12 misses!), the recent home games against the lowly Kings (10 misses!) and the NBA-leading Spurs (14 misses...egad!), and certainly didn't help in that road loss at Miami (eight misses!). Maybe Billups conducted free throw shooting clinics when he was here and we just didn't know about it, but the Nuggets' free throw percentage is plummeting and could prove costly in the playoffs. It certainly proved costly Tuesday night, as the Nuggets missed nine attempts from the charity stripe.
Poor free throw shooting combined with no one Nugget player able to put his team on his back in the fourth quarter cost the Nuggets arguably their most important game of the season to date. This wasn't a Butler-like performance by any stretch of the imagination, but 43.9% field goal shooting, 65.4% free throw shooting and 94 total points aren't going to win you many games.
Especially against an elite team like Oklahoma City.
The View From the Not-So-Cheap Seats...
...the Pepsi Center crowd was surprisingly late coming and sparse for such a big game. Making matters worse, many Nuggets fans defected with about two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter even though Oklahoma City's lead was only 11 points. I've picked on the Pepsi Center crowd for big games many times, but tonight's "effort" by the fans was shameful.
...it was great to see Mozgov get some early playing time, only to have our collective hearts broken when he went down with a sprained knee and ankle injury near the end of the first quarter. Get well soon, Moz!!
...the Nuggets finished with just 16 first quarter points, their lowest first-quarter output since trading Melo.
...Durant was hot in the first quarter and punished the Nuggets at the line in the fourth quarter. I guess it doesn't hurt having a superstar after all.
...Kenyon Martin continued his run of solid games played, with an assortment of big rebounds and great put-backs.
...Thunder center Kendrick Perkins did exactly what the Thunder wanted him to do: he got into Nene's head and flustered the Nuggets' big man. Nene had one of his worst shooting nights in recent memory and continued his streak of awful free throw shooting. It will be interesting to see how Nene responds to Perk on Friday night.
...when the Nuggets took the lead at 59-58 while Durant and Westbrook were on the floor, I was convinced we were winning this game. I figured the two OKC stars would be so winded by the fourth quarter that the Nuggets nightly energy wave would take over for good. The energy wave never came and the Thunder reserves were able to keep the game close enough for Durant and Westbrook to close it out.
...Raymond Felton seems to be getting more comfortable with his backup role and his shot looks better...except for that airball that he chucked over the backboard. You don't see that every day.
...Wilson Chandler showed again why his defensive versatility will be crucial for the Nuggets in the postseason, shutting down the powerful Serge Ibaka on a few key late possessions. Unfortunately, "Ill Will's" shooting was exactly that: ill.
...Harden could have closed the game for the Thunder with 1:07 left but he did his best Nene impersonation and missed two free throws (sorry, had to).
...even though the Nuggets had a 5% chance of winning this game with a minute left, their end-of-game execution was suspect at best. Why no three-point attempts whatsoever??
...the two teams walked off the court with mutual disgust. Friday is going to be brutal.
Non-Stiff of the Night
-Kevin Durant: Like it or not, Durant did what Melo used to do in crunch time - get to the free throw line. Durant's 11-12 free throw shooting may have been the key stat in this game, especially considering that eight of those attempts came during the fourth quarter.
Stiff of the Night
-J.R. Smith: Smith not only shot poorly (3-7) but he contributed nothing else during a mere 16 minutes of playing time. J.R. would finish the game with a +/- of -12, the worst of all the Nuggets on Tuesday night.
Nuggets fans (including this one) have been getting way too far ahead of ourselves regarding just how good this team is. I still believe these Nuggets could find themselves in the Western Conference Finals, but let's beat the Thunder a few times before booking our tickets to be there.