Even with a sea of blue staring them in the face, the Rockets didn't blink. They took it to the Thunder in Oklahoma and came away with a 107-100 victory to force a game six. Just like the Nuggets.
Superstar Kevin Durant got his points, but the rest of the Oklahoma City Thunder were very limited against a Rockets squad that refuses to fade like the Lakers. Coach Kevin McHale remained calm and stuck to his mostly solid rotations. James Harden and Francisco Garcia provided a huge punch by making threes and drawing free throws, scoring efficiently and (mostly) avoiding bad shots. The Rockets withstood Durant's initial barrage, and there just wasn't enough from the rest of the Thunder squad to challenge a 12 point lead the Rockets held going into the fourth quarter. They even withstood "Hack-an-Asik" that Scott Brooks employed in the closing minutes. Without Russell Westbrook, this Thunder team is now eminently beatable. The Rockets know it.
Most importantly in their victory, the Rockets played with poise, confidence and never panicked. For a team as young as the Rockets - the youngest in the league - they showed that they weren't intimidated in a playoff elimination game. 18,203 win-hungry Oklahomans screamed and heckled and booed Patrick Beverley like he was a science textbook, and the Rockets just shrugged it off. Amazingly, they held Kevin Durant to zero points in the fourth quarter. They came out and imposed their will on the Thunder early, kept their foot on the gas and didn't look back.
So why can't the Nuggets?
While the crazies in Oakland are certain to be jacked on the possibility of advancing in the playoffs for the first time in almost a decade, as a certain head coach might say - "how many points has the crowd scored?" The Nuggets need to remember that. There will be periods where their composure will be tested as Stephen Curry, perhaps motivated by his poor performance in game 5 and some whining from head coach Mark Jackson, nails some ridiculous horseshit from 30 feet out while the crowd goes nuts. Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee might be strongly tempted to crosscheck Andrew Bogut into the photographers below the rim. Even George Karl must resist the urge to panic and use a lineup featuring Julyan Stone, Andre Miller and Ty Lawson for more than one possession. They need to understand, collectively, that this Golden State team is going to be under almost as much pressure to close the series at home as the Nuggets are to bring it back to Denver for 4 more quarters - and they are nearly as young as the Nuggets.
This Nuggets team can be called nothing if not resilient. They emerged from the crucible of a heavy road schedule in the early part of the season and became the NBA's most dominant team at home. After two straight losses, they reeled off 9 straight wins, then five straight after another two losses later in the season. There's something about this team when it's wounded - it transforms. A flow of purposeful energy between the team becomes apparent, and easy shots and excellent rotations become subconscious. They tap into that extra reserve of energy that the disrespected, the angered, and the determined exude and suddenly, it's the Nuggets taking control. Just like the Rockets are in their series against the Thunder.
The Nuggets were not prepared for the playoffs. That much is abundantly clear at this point. Put it on the players, the coaches, or both, this team didn't know what it was in for, and the first four games showed it. Something changed in game 5, however. The Nuggets are adapting, fighting and finally playing their brand of basketball.
It wasn't too late for the Rockets. It's not too late for the Nuggets.