Every NBA prognosticator worth his leather balls has declared Denver dead in the 2011 playoffs, but the Nugs won't lay down. Last night's 104-101 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder found the team displaying the gumption we knew was there all along -- as well as establishing for all to see that Ty Lawson is the future of the franchise.
In our post-mortem of disappointing game three in this series, we wrote that Lawson is capable of becoming the squad's number-one scoring option, but "he's not there yet." Clearly, Lawson begs to differ. Last night, his offensive aggressiveness extended well beyond simply pushing the pace to looking for shots. And he made plenty of them, not just by slashing to the basket, but also when firing from long range -- a key weapon in the Nuggets' arsenal during the regular campaign that's been in short supply this postseason.
Granted, Lawson, who tallied 27 points, wasn't the entire show. Danilo Gallinari and J.R. Smith, neither of whom is a role model for on-court discipline, did a better job of playing within themselves and the offense as a whole, and they were rewarded with eighteen and fifteen points, respectively. Raymond Felton also stepped up with eleven points, and Kenyon Martin was a bulwark early on, scoring most of his thirteen points in the first quarter.
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This quartet helped make up for lesser performances by Nenê, who seemed out of rhythm and spent much of the contest in foul trouble, a still-not-right Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler, a non-contributor yet again. But that's the way it's been down the stretch: Each night a different hero to compensate for players, like Chandler, putting up zeroes.
That said, the Nuggets are not going to become the first NBA team to come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a seven game series -- because OKC is just too damn good. Kevin Durant had an off-night by his standards and still managed to pour in 31 points, and his total was nearly matched by Russell Westbrooks' thirty. Moreover, Serge Ibaka had another solid game, and while the likes of Thabo Sefolosha and Nazr Mohammed didn't have their O going, they're the sort of support staff superstars need to go deep in the playoffs.
Even in defeat, the Thunder were impressive. And given the well-documented weaknesses of the Lakers, the Mavericks and especially the Spurs, I'd now make them the odds-on favorites to represent the Western conference in the NBA Finals. As such, the Nuggets got the unluckiest draw in the playoffs -- one that exposed weaknesses that must be addressed during the offseason, which is likely to begin after Wednesday's return to Oklahoma City. But as a unit, they've got heart -- no doubt about that.
More from our Sports archive: "Denver Nuggets-Oklahoma City Thunder playoffs matchup: The mighty vs. the many."