Thunder-Nuggets Preview

Denver Nuggets coach George Karl said a few weeks ago he wanted
to match up with the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the
Western Conference playoffs.

On the brink of being swept by Oklahoma City in the first round,
his feelings are understandable.

Denver’s 97-94 loss on Saturday night put the Nuggets a game
from losing in the first round for the seventh time in eight years.
Injuries, player meltdowns and Karl’s battle with throat and neck
cancer have been factors in previous early exits.

This time, Denver might just be dealing with a bad matchup.

”There’s a big part of me that’s disappointed because of our
failures,” Karl said Sunday. ”But I also know that sometimes some
of the best teams lose in the first round because of matchups and
circumstances. Oklahoma City does a good job against some of our
strengths. We like the rim, and they have four defenders that like
to protect the rim, and do it pretty well.”

The Thunder’s defense has frustrated the Nuggets late in games,
and Denver has struggled to find a go-to player in crunch time.

On Saturday, J.R. Smith nearly brought his team back from 10
points down in the final 50 seconds when he hit two 3-pointers, but
he air-balled a 29-footer in the final seconds that could have sent
the game into overtime.

Now the Nuggets are trying to avoid being swept for the second
time in four seasons.

”When you’re on the verge of getting swept it’s always
embarrassing,” Smith said. ”You never want to get swept let alone
lose six out of eight to this team in the season. It’s not a good
feeling.”

The Thunder have beaten the Nuggets five times in the past 18
days. Three of those games have been close, including Games 1 and 3
of this series. Denver has hurt itself with poor execution down the
stretch and missed free throws.

The Nuggets were 30 for 45 from the free throw line on Saturday
and they’re shooting 68.7 percent from there in the series.

The Nuggets feel their little mistakes have made this series
appear less competitive.

”They’re good. They’re a good basketball team, but do you
reverse it and say we’re the best team if we make five more free
throws and we win the game?” Arron Afflalo said. ”Now we’re up
3-0.”

The Thunder are trying to maintain a balance while trying to win
their first series since moving to Oklahoma City from Seattle three
years ago. They have the youngest roster in the league and only
five Oklahoma City players have advanced past the first round –
Kendrick Perkins, Nate Robinson, Nazr Mohammed, Nick Collison and
Thabo Sefolosha.

They don’t feel their inexperience will be an issue Monday.

”The closeout game is all mental,” said Perkins, who won an
NBA title with Boston in 2008. ”It’s going to have to be a mental
game for us, mental toughness. It’s not going to be easy, we’re
going to have to stick together and play possession by possession
and make sure we make the extra effort.”

Denver is trying to do what no other NBA team has done – win a
series after going down 3-0. The first step is getting back in the
series, and Karl can draw on his experience when he coached the
SuperSonics in the 1996 NBA finals.

”We were 3-0 against a team called the Chicago Bulls, and they
had a rehearsal on our court on handing out the trophy,” he said.
”They had a stage they were going to bring on the court. They had
people with scripts on who was going to do what and who was going
to be where. We proceeded to win Game 4 and 5.”

Karl shared the anecdote with his team Sunday in the hope of
giving his players something grab onto, but the biggest motivator
for the Nuggets is pride.

”I’ve been part of that on a bigger stage team celebrating on
your home court,” forward Kenyon Martin said. ”It’s not a good
feeling by any stretch of the imagination. So we need win – bottom
line. There’s no other way to put it.”

If they don’t win, Denver will again make another early exit
from the playoffs. Two years ago, the Nuggets reached the Western
Conference finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in six
games, but that’s the only time in the past eight years they
advanced past the first round.

Despite recent history, Karl’s not ready to concede
anything.

”We still think the process of learning and winning in the
playoffs is still going on,” he said.