If the Denver Nuggets wanted to dispute the notion that sure, they’re entertaining and fun and everything, but nowhere near ready for prime time, Friday night at a packed Pepsi Center was a good opportunity.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, last season’s Western Conference champions, came in with a record of 42-15. If they’re not going back to the NBA Finals, according to most experts, it’s only because the San Antonio Spurs are.
They brought with them two of the game’s transcendent stars — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. And they’re coached by Scott Brooks, a former George Karl assistant who knows all his tricks.
Well, most of them.
The Nuggets entered the game with considerable confidence of their own. They’d gone 20-7 since the first of the year. Point guard Ty Lawson, 25, and forward Danilo Gallinari, 24, seemed on the verge of turning potential into consistent performance. And the Nuggets’ depth, the other side of the no-star coin, was giving them a clear advantage during those periods in every NBA game when reserves take over.
So they came out for the late ESPN tip and immediately dozed off. Andre Iguodala and Kenneth Faried turned the ball over before the crowd, which is instructed to stand until the home team scores, was permitted to sit down.
Barely two minutes in, Oklahoma City led 9-2 and Karl had seen enough. He removed Faried, his starting power forward and burgeoning media star, 2:28 in. He replaced him with Wilson Chandler, the first move in a chess match with his former protege that went on all night.
“I think it’s a combination of I’m a little tired of the first unit not being defensively responsible early in games,” Karl said afterward. “It’s not only Kenneth; there’s a few other guys on that list. And wanting to be small, wanting to play small against their big. I didn’t think they would take (Serge) Ibaka or (Kendrick) Perkins out of the game three minutes into the quarter. As I substitute later in the quarter, they always can go small and they go small, they like to play small. We just got lucky on him being especially hot tonight.”
There was that. Chandler did his best Kevin Durant impression, leading the Nuggets with 35 points, including an unconscious six of seven from long distance, one of the Nuggets’ main weaknesses. He also outscored Durant by 10. Westbrook led all scorers with 38.
The move pretty much guaranteed the Nuggets a mismatch somewhere on the perimeter, whether on Chandler or Gallinari, because Ibaka, a shot-blocker, and Perkins, a rebounder, neutralize their main talents when they’re that far from the basket.
“It’s just easier to get a shooting four (big forward) open in basketball than anything else,” Karl said. “Most coaches protect the paint and Wilson is very clever and very aware of how to slip and how to space. I think we add another piece of nine or 10 guys that can help us win a basketball game and Wilson has helped us win two or three already this year.”
This selection among relative equals is both a blessing and a curse. Karl went nine deep Friday night, making spectators out of another handful of capable players — Anthony Randolph, Timofey Mozgov, Jordan Hamilton and Evan Fournier. The four he did bring off the bench — Chandler, Corey Brewer, Andre Miller and JaVale McGee — outscored their Oklahoma City counterparts (Kevin Martin, Nick Collison, Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher) — by an amazing count of 71-11.
“That’s a great asset to have,” Brooks said of Chandler. “That’s one of the strengths of their team. They’re deep. They have a lot of good players that play, a lot of skill players that can do multiple things and guard multiple players. Thirty-five points, you don’t expect that. Give him credit. He stepped up when the moment was needed and made big shots.”
The Nuggets’ bench dominated the second quarter and carried a 56-47 lead into the locker room at intermission. The starters came out in the third quarter pretty much the way they had come out in the first. Less than two minutes in, the lead was down to two.
Karl substituted even more quickly than he had in the first half, replacing Faried and Gallinari with Chandler and Brewer just 2:04 into the third quarter. The Nuggets took a 10-point lead into the fourth.
Of course, the flip side of depth is too many choices. Up 10, Karl decided to defend the paint with more size, so he reinserted big man Kosta Koufos. He also went to his veteran point guard, Andre Miller, whom he trusts during crunch time.
Focusing on defense sometimes produces runouts, which is what Karl was hoping would happen. It sometimes just produces conservative, halfcourt basketball, in which a team deploying Koufos and Iguodala at the same time is going to have trouble scoring. Which is what happened.
“I thought with the lead, I was hoping to be defensive-minded and I thought if we just make them miss shots, we would run,” Karl said. “And our running game was the reason we were probably somewhat in control of the game.
“We didn’t make them miss enough shots. That’s when I went more offensive-minded . . . I just have so much faith in Andre, but Corey probably played better than Andre down the stretch. I just didn’t feel ready for that one.”
So the lead disappeared. By the last possession of the game, the score was tied at 103. Karl called timeout with 17.6 seconds remaining. The play called for Lawson to dribble out most of the clock, then make a decision.
“When we give Oklahoma City any time to shoot, (Durant and Westbrook) are big shot-makers,” Lawson explained. “We didn’t want to give them a chance. We either wanted overtime or just win the game right there at the end of regulation.”
“Ty had an option,” Karl said. “We were trying to get a matchup maybe for Ty or Gallo. They switched well, they switched everything and then Ty had the space to play and he did.”
The Thunder switched out ace perimeter defender Thabo Sefolosha onto Lawson, who dribbled just outside the three-point line until the final seconds. Sefolosha gave him enough room to make sure he couldn’t dart around him. That was all Lawson needed.
He used the room to step just inside the arc and launch what was officially recorded as a 23-foot jumper over Sefolosha’s outstretched hand. It slipped through the net like a soft breeze. The game clock showed two-tenths of a second remaining. Lawson did a back-pedaling Mark Jackson shimmy.
“We switched and he made a tough shot,” Brooks said. “He made a contested shot over one of our best defenders. Sometimes that’s the way it goes. A lot of times we’ve made that stop. Give them credit. He stepped up and made a shot and it was a tough shot.”
The Nuggets pulled within a game and a half of the Memphis Grizzlies for the fourth playoff seed in the West and home-court advantage in the first round. That would be nice considering Karl’s team has won 10 in a row and 25 of 28 overall at the Pepsi Center.
The Nuggets are now 2-1 against both the Thunder and Grizzlies, two of the four teams ahead of them in the Western Conference standings. They are 1-1 against the Spurs and Clippers, the other two.
Yes, those are regular season results. And yes, the Nuggets’ fast-paced, take-it-to-the-rim style — they lead the NBA with more than 57 points a game in the paint — is harder to sustain in the postseason. The fourth quarter Friday was an illustration of how their offense sometimes stalls when forced to play out of half-court sets.
Nevertheless, they found a way to match up with a team considered their superior and they found a guy to make the big shot at the end, a guy their critics say they don’t have.
They’re now 38-22 with the confidence that they can play with anybody. All Karl has to do is figure out who’s playing well and who’s not — and do it before the game gets out of hand. For the third-youngest roster in the NBA, that’s not too bad.