Apr 24, 2011, 1:52 AM EDT
So this should go over well in Denver.
Let’s start with the controversy. Here’s the final play in Denver in the Thunder’s win over the Nuggets. You decide.
Did Harden get him on the arm? Did he go straight up?
Nothing will change the result, however. Thunder win, 97-94, 3-0 series lead for the young’ns from OKC.
It was a haymaker-type of game. Just when one team would think they had the advantage, the other team would storm back. Kevin Durant had an inefficient night, so Russell Westbrook stepped up with 23 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists to just two turnovers, doing most of his damage from the free-throw line (11-of-13). J.R. Smith decided to show up for Denver (15 points, 4-of-9 from the arc)? That’s OK, Serge Ibaka roars back with a career playoff-high 22 points to go along with 16 rebounds. The Thunder thought they had the game under control when they hit the afterburners and blew right past the Nuggets, only to nearly surrender the lead thanks to costly turnovers. The Nuggets roared back, they had a shot to win … and it just didn’t work out for them.
In reality, the Nuggets have never really seemed to have control of this series. They’ve had their fair share of leads, this isn’t like Sixers-Heat, or even Celtics-Knicks. But the Thunder have had an answer for every adjustment the Nuggets have made. Even on a night when Durant doesn’t have it, their role players step up. The Nuggets have little excuse for how this one ended up. They shot a better percentage from the field. They had more free throws, a constant complaint of teams against the foul-drawing Thunder. They turned the ball over a few more times, were outrebounded a few times. But the real problem was free throws.
The Nuggets left 15 points on the court at the line — 30-of-45 from the stripe, with Nene hitting just 5-of-10. It’s easy to point to those in most games, but here, with the Nuggets hitting just 67 percent, there’s no way around it. They really did lose that game, and probably the series, at the free-throw line.
So now the Thunder will try to close out the series in Game 4. Denver has been an emotional roller-coaster this entire season, and Smith’s postgame outburst at the lack of a foul will probably not endear him to the zebras. The Nuggets needed to rely on their home crowd to push the Thunder, and instead, OKC has weathered the storm. They’ve gone into a hostile environment, up 2-0, taken their opponents’ stiffest punch, and walloped them back with their Ibaka haymaker.
The Thunder look like they could be the championship contender people have started discussing them as, and they need just one more roundhouse to put the Nuggets down for the count and set off an uncertain future for Denver, while they head on to face … well, we don’t have any idea who they’ll face in the second round.
But with every game, the Thunder look stronger and stronger.
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