NBA

Nuggets miss 'Melo at end of Game 1

Oklahoma City Thunder
Russell Westbrook (31) and Kevin Durant combine for 72 points against Denver.
Sports Xchange SPORTS XCHANGE, Art Garcia
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For everything that was right on that fateful day back in February that rerouted the course of Denver's NBA franchise, the closing seconds of Game 1 against Oklahoma City were all wrong.

Lost and fumbling the playoff opener away, the Nuggets failed to get off the kind of shot that could've given them a chance.

The kind of shot guys named Kobe and Dwyane and Ray make look so easy. Denver had one of those guys not so long ago.

The Nuggets’ 107-103 loss to the Thunder on Sunday isn't an indictment of Denver's trade-deadline deal with New York, since deporting Carmelo Anthony clearly brought harmony and teamwork back to the Rocky Mountains. What it did do was subtract the clear A (Melo) and B (Chauncey Billups) that the Nuggets enjoyed in the go-to pecking order.

The clear air for the Nuggets since Feb. 22 — an 18-7 record to finish the regular season and quantum jump in key stats across the board — blew into Oklahoma City Arena. George Karl has players he wants to coach. They share the ball. They help each other.

This new and less impaired Denver outfit spreads the wealth in a way it couldn't with its former scoring machine. Eight of the Nuggets averaged double figures in scoring post-Melo, more than any other team in the league.

So there was OKC, clinging to a 104-101 lead with 22.4 seconds
left, thanks largely to a credited tip-in that should have been called
goaltending on Thunder center Kendrick Perkins less than a minute earlier.
Denver was still in position to offer up another lower-seed upset, but the
Nuggets didn't know where to turn. (New Orleans and Memphis pulled off major shockers earlier in the day, with the Grizzlies claiming their win over
top-seeded San Antonio on a perfectly-executed 3-point shot by Shane Battier.)

Karl drew up his potential game-tying magic, but the rabbit never made it out of the hat. Raymond Felton started the fateful play by throwing an ill-advised pass to an unsuspecting Nene, easily Denver's best player in Game 1. Nene nearly bobbled the ball away and was unsure of where to go with it once gaining control. The ball ended up back with Felton, who found nothing better than a drifting, contested attempt that had almost no chance.

Is that the kind of look Melo would get? Not a chance. And that's just one of the evening's ironies.

"I do not think we are going to beat (Oklahoma City) with shots and execution at the end of the game," Karl said, refusing to pin the loss on that botched possession. "We are going to beat this team with stops and penetration."

Oklahoma City has that old Nuggets dynamic, albeit with a much fresher, healthier vide. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are everything to the Thunder that Melo and Chauncey once were to Denver ... and more. Durant and Westbrook are the main reasons Karl didn't want any part of the Thunder.

He also knows they're a little younger. They're a little quicker. They're a little more athletic. And those two OKC All-Stars are still years shy of their prime. Karl's dubious public declaration during the last days of the regular season that Denver fancied a first-round matchup with the Mavericks ruffled a few feathers in Big D. Folks in Oklahoma City licked their chops.

Karl did prefer the jump shooters in Dallas, but the differences between the Nuggets and Thunder are landslides. The Nuggets aren't exactly over the hill — average age is 25. Guys such as Ty Lawson, Nene, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith aren't lacking for quicks or nimble bodies.

Denver didn't just keep pace with its Northwest Division rivals in Game 1, the Nuggets were in control for much of the first half, opening as up as much as a 13-point edge, and took leads several times in the second half of a contest that resembled a middleweight title fight. The Nuggets' punches were coming from all angles. Nene (22 points) landed the most, with Danilo Gallinari, Kenyon, Lawson and Felton among the deep cast chipping in.

For the Thunder, it was strictly a one-two combination. Durant scored 41 in only his seventh career postseason game, carving through Denver with Melo-like ruthlessness. Westbrook (31 points) hit his share of big shots and controlled the attack with seven assists.

"Both of them played well and give them credit," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of his two studs. "They stepped up and made big plays when we needed them."

Slowing either Durant or Westbrook is the Nuggets' foremost challenge in Wednesday night's Game 2.

"We've got to try to limit one of those guys," Martin said. "I thought we did a good job of taking everyone else away. We've got to see what we can do better."

Denver likely wouldn't have won 50 and finished fifth in the West had Melo stayed past the trade deadline. Chemistry was shot and it likely would only have gotten worse. The Nuggets might have sunk into the lottery like Utah and Phoenix.

But for that one instance with the game on the line, Melo could have helped Sunday night. Even if it sounds wrong.

Tagged: Nuggets, Knicks, Thunder, Kenyon Martin, Raymond Felton, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Ty Lawson

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