The Nuggets saved face, but they did little more than that with their Game 4 win over Oklahoma City on Monday night.
They can bask in a 104-101 victory for the next two days, but the reality is this is the Thunder’s series, and rest assured they won’t collapse like the Vancouver Canucks. They are too deep and too balanced to lose Wednesday’s game at home, let alone the two Denver needs to rally from 3-0 down.
You need reasons? Two jump out right away — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. While the Nuggets search for offense, Durant and Westbrook keep providing it for the Thunder, combining for 61 on Monday. They’re averaging 30 and 26.2 points a game respectively in this series, and it’s sometimes hard to believe because they get them within the flow of the offense, not out of desperation, shot-clock-beating heaves.
Mostly, though, the Thunder are in control of this series because they keep coming at Denver.
The final minutes Monday showed that, when a seemingly comfortable 10-point Denver lead dwindled to two and the Thunder had a final shot to send it into overtime. The shot bounced off the rim.
"I wish we would have made one more stop and not make it as scary as it got," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "Durant and Westbrook, at the end, they’re so tuned up and hyped that it’s pretty impressive what they do."
The ending was eerily similar to Game’s 3 final minute, when the Nuggets stormed back from 10 down and had a chance to tie. As similar as it was, it had a completely different feel.
The Nuggets’ comeback in Game 3 felt like desperation. Oklahoma City’s rally seemed methodical, like it was part of the plan and a reminder that the Nuggets’ season is ending very soon.
After the game, Durant was complimentary of the Nuggets but sounded confident in his team.
"We did what we wanted to do," he said. "Our defense was solid."
When asked if the Nuggets’ defense had an impact on his game, Durant, who had a game-high 31, shrugged it off.
"Nah," he said. "We still got the ball and I think we made the right passes. They’re not going to keep the ball out of our hands for the whole game."
That’s the problem for Denver. The Nuggets scratched and they clawed, they played great in stretches, but they still had to sweat out a win because the only guys who can stop Durant and Westbrook are Durant and Westbrook.
Despite scoring 30, Westbrook missed 18 shots and all seven from behind the arc. That won’t happen three more times.
If the Nuggets have a chance, they have to stick to the game plan they formulated Monday night. Karl wanted his quick point guards to drive the lane and challenge Oklahoma City’s big men. Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton did that, and even though the Thunder had nine blocks, Karl didn’t mind.
"We have to get Ty and Raymond as many minutes in the game, attacking their defense, accept they’re going to block some shots," Karl said. "Their interior defense is going to make some good plays, but that’s who we are. We may come up with some other stuff, other tricks, but the greater portion of our game is attack the paint. Try to find basketball plays instead of run basketball plays."
The result: Denver had 30 points in the paint, but Lawson and Felton also went to the line 18 times and hit 15 free throws.
The Nuggets have to keep doing that to have a chance to bring this series back to Denver for a Game 6. The reality is that all their points in the paint won’t matter if Durant and Westbrook keep scoring at their current pace.
The Thunder don’t seem worried. Despite having the youngest roster in the NBA, they have the look and sound of veterans who know how to win a series despite having just three players who have played past the first round.
"We’re ready to get Game 5 on," Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said. "Come Wednesday, we’ll be ready to play."
The Nuggets, with a trip to the Western Conference finals in their recent history, don’t have the same swagger. They might be ready to play, too, but their fate lies in the hands of their opponent.