I had seen this story before. At least I thought I had. The Thunder held a nice first half lead behind a hot start from Kevin Durant, was playing terrific defense and really appeared to have assumed control of the game.
Then the Nuggets closed the first half on a big run and cut a 13-point Thunder lead to one. Then KD started the second half 0-6 from the field to go along with Russell Westbrook going 1-6 in the third. The Nuggets had gone from being down to up three with four minutes left in the third. Oklahoma City looked to be out of sorts, pressing and ready to melt down again.
And then Eric Maynor checked in.
The Thunder immediately ripped off seven straight and finished the quarter on a 13-7 run. OKC went down again briefly to start the fourth, but with Maynor at the wheel the Thunder went on a 15-0 run to go up 13 on the Nuggets. The ball started moving, James Harden was scoring, Durant hit a couple jumpers and got to the line and just like that, OKC was playing the way we know it should.
I was actually entirely fine with Maynor finishing the game and leaving Westbrook on the bench. There’s no way to put it other than Westbrook was bad. He was forcing things, stopping the ball and taking tough shots. Maynor had the Thunder playing loose. And it looked like Scott Brooks might let Maynor close it. Normally Westbrook comes back with about eight minutes left in the fourth, but this time, he didn’t check back in until there were just four minutes remaining.
He did his job well enough as the Thunder closed the Nuggets, with a little help behind a big jumper from Westbrook with 40 seconds left. The Thunder made 15 of 22 from the foul line in the fourth, played terrific defense, outrebounded the Nuggets 50-41 and entirely took away every top option for Denver except for Ty Lawson.
Coming in, there was some fear of the Nuggets. And I still have it. The way they play together makes them dangerous. But as we saw, when the Thunder gets settled and plays together in the halfcourt and makes shots they should, they’re really, really good. This team guards. Big time. Scoring on OKC isn’t easy. Durant finally got it going in the second half scoring 15 of his 32 the last 24 minutes, Harden was awesome off the bench (13 points on just 4-12, but he was good, trust me) and both Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka owned the boards.
Oklahoma City looked good. You should be encouraged after this one. This was the Thunder’s first win in Denver since 2007, and in those the average margin was 19.9 in the Nuggets favor. The Thunder basically clinched the tiebreaker over Denver because of divisional record and has the magic number for the division at just one with four to go. This was a game against a dangerous, hot team and the Thunder took care of business. I think we were all a bit nervous and anxious coming in, but some of that should be quelled now.
- Perk was just terrific inside tonight. What a difference he makes. Nene had just seven on 3-10 shooting. The wonderful thing about Perk is that he’s capable of guarding a player of Nene’s caliber one-on-one. That’s just such a boost to the rest of the defense. For a team like Denver that wants to get your defense collapsing and rotating, not having to help on Nene means Thunder defenders can stay home on shooters like Gallinari and Chandler.
- Naturally, Perk scuffled with Nene in the first half. Both were handed technicals and it started with Nene grabbing Perk’s jersey and holding it. Perk slapped it away and eventually the two were forehead-to-forehead saying who knows what. Someone is going to die in a seven-game series I think.
- Again, Westbrook wasn’t great offensively (5-17, 18 points, six assists) but Lawson absolutely torched him on the other end. Lawson set a career-high with 28 points and just seemed to go around Westbrook at will.
- Let’s all be honest here though: This team isn’t going anywhere without Westbrook though. I loved what Maynor brought in this one, but cool your jets if you really think Maynor needs minutes over Westbrook consistently. That’s the beauty of having a backup of Maynor caliber is nights like this. Westbrook can’t be expected to be perfect every night and when he’s not, Maynor can steady the situation. While Maynor was far better than Russ in this one, this team has to have Westbrook played 35 minutes and handling things in crunch time if it wants to do something.
- Serge Ibaka was just so huge on the offensive glass in the third and early fourth. He had four offensive rebounds and 11 total, but he just did a great job creating extra possessions for the Thunder.
- I don’t know why KD is struggling a bit in the third, but here’s my theory: It appears that KD is pressing in the second half. He’s relaxed and in the flow in the first 24 minutes, but is trying too hard to take over in the second. Like he’s stressing more and more after each miss. It’s almost a snowball thing. Once he got to the line and got a few free throws down, it seemed to all open up for him again.
- I loved Harden creating and handling in crunch time. With a minute left, Westbrook gave the ball to Harden near halfcourt with 12 on the shot clock and let him go to work. Not only is Harden more under control and reliable with the ball there, but he’s great at creating and now, finishing his own. He got fouled and miss both free throws, but I loved the move.
- Think the Thunder coaches wanted OKC to get back in this one? Assistant Brian Keefe stood up and yelled after every shot for the Thunder to get back defensively.
- Don’t forget though, Arron Afflalo was out for Denver and he’s a big piece. He’s a good shooter and solid, long defender. He’s definitely going to change things a bit.
- If you included Russell Westbrook grabbing his face and squinting one eye after a play in a drinking game, you’d be wasted by halftime. He does it at least 10 times a game.
- Timofey Mozgov went down with what looked like a pretty severe knee injury in the first half. The official statement was knee and ankle sprain with more evaluation to come, but if Denver doesn’t have him, it loses a lot of depth inside.
- OKC is just two back of Dallas for the three-seed. Just sayin’.
- Grant Long after KD made a basket that hit the rim three times, the backboard and then rolled around before going through: “KD with the patented step-back floater, nothing but net.”
- KD and Gallinari scuffled a bit and each picked up techs with a few seconds left after Gallo bumped Durant after the whistle. The message is clear: Bump a Thunderer, you’re going to hear about it.
- Brian Davis Line of the Night: “Thabo Sefolosha has been a one man crime wave!” And a bonus: after Harden missed a crucial late free throw: “You aren’t going to make this easy on us are you, bearded one?”
It’s just one win, but if we’re all honest, I think we let out a big sigh after that final buzzer. The actual team included. We got a nice taste of what a series with Denver would look like, what OKC has on them, what they have on the Thunder and what needs to be done to win four times. But already the Thunder has proved to themselves that they can win in Denver, which has been a house of horrors the past four years. That’s an underrated part of this. Putting a chokehold on the Northwest is wonderful, but this game really felt like OKC rediscovered itself a bit. The Thunder got back to basics, executed and won a game. Maybe they are learning.
Next up: Home versus the Clippers Wednesday.