Two weeks back, we wrote that the Nuggets-Thunder playoff series would be a war, and that prediction was certainly borne out by last night's 107-103 OKC victory. Credit for the Thunder win goes to superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, aided by referee Steve Javie -- in part because of the reasons you'd expect, but not entirely.
There were a lot of positives for Denver -- first and foremost being the continuing aggressiveness of Nenê. He played with the sort of basketball bloodlust that's been sorely lacking in his skill set for, well, his entire career to date. He took teeth-gritted delight at showing up the likes of Kendrick Perkins, who clearly brings out the macho in him. He scored 22 points, and likely would have racked up even more if he hadn't missed a significant amount of time due to what turned out to be a bruised knee.
More Nugs deserving of some plaudits: Danilo Gallinari, who played under control for the most part; Kenyon Martin and Chris "Birdman" Andersen, both of whom hit some shots they don't usually make and were defensively tenacious down low; and Wilson Chandler, who played with passion on both ends of the floor.
Of course, passion alone isn't enough against scorers as prolific as Durant and Westbrook, both of whom had way too many open looks thanks to slow rotations and an unwillingness of defenders to play them tight for fear that they might blow past them. That's a legitimate risk, but giving them room is worse. Better to get beaten while harassing the hell out of them than to hope they'll miss all their jump shots -- because they won't.
Man do I hope Arron Afflalo gets better soon...
Durant in particular was the beneficiary of superstar calls from Javie, who's the most whistle-happy ref in the league -- and the rest of his crew followed his lead last night. There were an arena-load of violations that better refs would have ignored in the name of letting the players decide the game, plus a technical against Raymond Felton that was among the more unjustified you'll see until the next game Javie works. Yet for all the should-have-been-non-calls that were cited, the refs missed an obvious case of offensive goaltending during crunch time, which gave the Thunder a 102-101 lead they wouldn't surrender.
Tip to Javie: If a player's hand is in the net and the ball is still on the rim, it's goaltending. Remember that.
Of course, the Nuggets could have capitalized on all those fouls by making their free throws -- but they wound up hitting a pathetic 63.6 percent from the line. If they'd canned just half of the twelve charity stripers they missed, they would have won. And that's not Javie's fault.
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Another fear for the future is the lack of a go-to player when the game's on the line. Of course, there's no guarantee Carmelo Anthony could have made the difference: Did you see his pathetic three try as the clock ticked down in the Knicks' loss to the Celtics? But during the final couple of minutes, Felton put up a pair of no-hopers, Gallinari turned the ball over in embarrassing fashion and K-Mart clothes-lined a long ball -- efforts that can't be described as confidence builders.
Yes, it's unfair that the Nuggets should be facing the hottest team in the league in the first round despite their brilliant performances post-Melo trade. Right now, anyway, the Thunder look tougher than all three teams seeded higher than them -- the Spurs and the Lakers, who lost first time out, and the Mavs, who topped the Trail Blazers, but in unimpressive fashion. Still, those are the breaks -- and the Nuggets are capable of beating this team.
Doing so during their next face-off, this Wednesday, would be a really good idea.
More from our Sports archive: "Denver Nuggets-Oklahoma City Thunder playoffs matchup: The mighty vs. the many."