It really just sort of felt like it was time for Kevin Durant. After the way he carried Team USA in Turkey, he was ready for this.
His Thunder didn’t start the way they wanted. I don’t think they played the way they wanted. But behind his playoff career-high 41 points, they certainly finished the way they wanted. KD was up to the the moment. He was ready for the challenge. During one stretch spanning between the third and fourth quarters, Durant had a hand in 22 of 25 OKC points. He had 16 at the half on 4-9, but 9-13 in the second, including 3-4 from 3.
“I’ve been preparing and putting in a lot of work,” he said. “Last year in the playoffs I didn’t shoot the ball the way I wanted to. But it’s a new season. My teammates always encourage me and put me in good positions to score and tonight they did that.”
But that’s just Durant. You know a guy played wonderfully when his teammate goes for 31 on 12-23 shooting and he gets a bit overshadowed. But not only did Russell Westbrook combine with Durant for 72 of OKC’s 107, but he hit the biggest shot of the game, pretty much icing the Nuggets with 30 seconds left. Well, I guess that depends on who you ask. Maybe the biggest shot of the game was one that probably shouldn’t have counted.
With 1:05 left and the Thunder down one, Westbrook missed a baseline jumper but Kendrick Perkins tipped it home to put OKC up a point. It appeared, even on first glance, to have been basket interference.
“Appeared,” George Karl laughed postgame. “”I just feel bad. Obviously we made the stop and very obviously it was goaltending.”
I’m not going to argue with him. It looked that way to me too and I watched the replay about 60 times. It was a big break for the Thunder, but that wasn’t the end of the game. OKC still had to come up with stops and finish off Denver. Which is what it did.
The Thunder started off slow while the Nuggets did the opposite hitting their first seven shots. Denver led by as many as 12 in the first half but OKC ripped off an 8-1 run keyed by its bench to pull within three. From that point on, it was game on. The crowd was into it and the team seemed to re-discover some energy.
Oh, and it helped that Durant is awesome at basketball and took over everything in the second half.
This game was scary for me because starting in an 0-1 hole would’ve been devastating. If you think the Thunder had the pressure and weight of expectations on them tonight, imagine the feeling heading into Wednesday. I don’t think there’s any doubt that OKC came out a bit tight in this one. The first 10 possessions or so weren’t very good and the Nuggets were dropping everything. I think the Thunder were a bit stunned.
But a big Serge Ibaka dunk, a nice three-point play by Westbrook and a flurry of a finish to the first half awoke the Thunder and set up a really good second half. After allowing 60 points the first 24 minutes, OKC let Denver score just 42 in the second half. I don’t want to say I’m encouraged, because these Nuggets are tough. This wasn’t the same group OKC handled twice over the past few weeks.
“I think they played better. They hit more shots. We guarded them well the last two games of the regular season.” Nick Collison said. “We kind of knew they were capable of playing better and they’re tough man. It’s going to be a tough series.”
Indeed it is. But Game 1 is down and the Thunder holds an edge. It’s exactly what we wanted. But it’s obvious: This won’t come easy.
- KD walked into the post-game presser carrying three things: his cell phone, some headphones and a Bible. I just found that so very, very KD.
- Obvious difference in closing style between these two teams. OKC relied entirely on Westbrook and Durant while Denver spread its 103 points out pretty evenly between nine players. But in the closing 10 possessions or so, it didn’t look like the Nuggets had a good feel where to go. George Karl didn’t sound too concerned about it after the game.
- Nick Collison: Two points, one rebound in 26 minutes. But he was a +12. I asked him after the game if he wants to shake the hand of the guy that invented it. “Yeah, yeah it’s great. Cause before that, it would be a worthless game,” he said. “I actually wish people would hype it up a little bit more. Nah, I’m just kidding.” The Thunder’s second unit really won this game. Well, behind KD and Westbrook obviously. “It’s not just me,” Collison said. “We have a good familiarity with each other … I like to think I help when I’m out there defensively. Communicating, plugging up some holes — I think that’s what I do best. I think I can help team defense that way. But I think it speaks more to our second unit as a whole.”
- Scary moment for Denver when Nene bumped knees with Perk in the third quarter. He was in a lot of pain and left the game, but returned not long after. Perk didn’t feel any affects of the bump, but that’s probably because he wears armor on both legs.
- Karl: “I don’t think we’re going to beat this team with execution. I think we’re going to beat them with stops.”
- Nene was terrific in this one. Perk, Nazr Mohammed, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison — didn’t matter who OKC threw at him. Nene finished with 22 on 9-11 shooting and had about 15 nasty dunks. He’s going to be a problem going forward.
- I don’t know what the best highlight was from this one. One of Ibaka’s incredible blocks like his entirely ridiculous chasedown on Wilson Chandler, KD’s unbelievable layup or something else. It was a packed game.
- My hands were shaky at tip off. I’m not kidding. I could definitely feel it. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for a team to keep it under control in those situations.
- When Eric Maynor shoots a 3, you think it’s going in every time don’t you?
- George Karl is on another level when it comes to talking to the media. He’s just so calm, relaxed, candid and funny. He says what he means to say, thinks about his answers and doesn’t take any of it too serious. Karl was asked by a reporter pregame if Gallinari could become a playoff star like Melo. Gallinari walked by right at the same time. Karl yelled out to Gallinari, “Gallo, can you be a star like Melo?” And Gallinari, not missing a beat answered, “I don’t speak English.” Pretty good exchange.
- I know some were probably frustrated with Westbrook down the stretch and I agree, he forced some shots when the ball clearly should’ve went to Durant. But like I always say, you’ve got to live with that if you want to get the good like him hitting the jumper to seal it. It’s just how he plays. If you haven’t figured that out by now, you haven’t been paying very close attention.
- I sat by the great Lang Whitaker tonight which was pretty fun. Always have had a ton of respect for his work. Definitely an NBA writer I look up to.
- Look at the box score. Not a ton of difference across the board. Field goal attempt: 77-77. Makes: 37-38. Rebounds: 37-34. Turnovers: 11-11. Free throw attempts: 28-33. But here’s the big one: Free throw makes. Denver missed 12 at the line tonight while OKC just missed six. Probably the difference right there. Oh, and the goaltending. Don’t forget that.
- James Harden, big non-factor. He scored just five points and couldn’t hit anything, going 0-4 from 3, all being good looks. OKC is going to need him badly going on.
- If you were wondering, it was indeed very loud. I had a headache after the first quarter and I’m still feeling it.
Winning Game 1 honestly feels like the Thunder got a little something off their backs. Like the pressure of starting well is behind them. Scott Brooks didn’t say it, but you could definitely sense some relief in his voice, along with Durant and Westbrook’s. It’s clear that the Nuggets won’t go quietly. But this is the playoffs. Things aren’t supposed to come easy. George Karl said pregame that the thing people don’t realize is that winning Game 1 isn’t near as hard as winning Game 3 or 4. It’s gets more difficult as you go on. It’s going to be a challenge, but I get the feeling that Durant, and the rest of his group, are ready.
Next up: Game 2 in OKC Wednesday.