April 21, 2011

The Denver Nuggets were within mere possessions of stealing Game 1 on the road in Oklahoma City, but Game 2 had a decidedly different tone. The Thunder punished the Nuggets with strong execution right from the opening tip Wednesday and sealed a 106-89 victory with relative ease.

• The greatest contrast between Games 1 and 2 came in the opening minutes, as Denver fell well short of replicating the fast start that had given it an early advantage in Sunday's game. The Nuggets, impatient on offense, finished the first quarter with just 15 points on 29 percent shooting from the field, digging a 16-point hole after only 12 minutes. Those are remarkably inefficient numbers for one of the top offensive teams in the game, but Oklahoma City applied defensive pressure in all the right places to force turnovers and long jumpers.

That said, the Nuggets' first-quarter failures didn't doom them; Denver made notable scoring bursts in every quarter thereafter, each with the potential to slice the deficit and pull the Nuggets within striking distance. That never quite happened, as the Thunder's double-digit lead virtually acted as an impenetrable barrier. Every time the Nuggets were within 12 or 14 points, the Thunder would counter by getting a few stops and rattling off a mini-scoring run of their own. Oklahoma City's consistency was downright frightening: It never really gave Denver a chance to compete. The first quarter certainly didn't help the Nuggets' cause, but it was the Thunder's constant, recognizable superiority that kept it from being a competitive game.

• Oddly enough, the Thunder were able to score at an elite rate -- 117.8 points per 100 possessions -- despite less dominant performances from both their stars. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were effective -- they combined for 44 points on 42.4 percent shooting Wednesday after dropping 72 points on 55.6 percent shooting in Game 1 -- but the key to Oklahoma City's offensive resiliency was its balance. Serge Ibaka scored 12 points with an active game around the rim (12 rebounds) and a few mid-range jumpers. James Harden flashed his versatility in scoring 18. Nick Collison, role player supreme, had 10 points of his own off open jumpers and rolls to the rim. Even Kendrick Perkins looked like an offensive weapon at times. Perkins went to work in the post to exploit mismatches and grabbed a game-high six offensive rebounds. The production on this Thunder team can run deep under the right circumstances, and the flow of the offense allowed everyone to get involved on Wednesday.

• Oklahoma City's defense and supplemental scoring removed any need for a huge game from Durant, but it was still surprising to see him attempt just 15 field goals -- well below his season average of 19.7 -- especially given the lax defense of Wilson Chandler. In isolation situations, Chandler can be an effective defender. Yet when Durant utilizes screens, either on or off the ball, Chandler tends to get lost. Chasing a shooter of Durant's caliber around screens is a thankless task (not to mention a difficult one), but Chandler's effort in Game 2 was disappointing; it wasn't uncommon to see Chandler trail Durant only to give up halfway around a screen, surrendering an open jumper to one of the best shooters in the game out of fear of fouling or sheer laziness.

Chandler can hardly afford to be so callous while defending such a potent offensive threat, and considering that Chandler was also costing his team on the offensive end with his poor shot selection (he went 0-for-6 in 30 minutes), I'm not sure why he felt so entitled. Regardless, coach George Karl should consider using Danilo Gallinari even more as a primary defender on Durant, and consider using Chandler only as a last resort once Arron Afflalo (hamstring) returns to the lineup.

• Westbrook has made a career out of teetering on the edge of control at all times, and the tilt to his game is part of what makes him so explosive. Yet Westbrook never really established himself in Game 2, with most of his scoring coming off isolation moves off the dribble or kick-out passes from the dribble penetration of others. Westbrook balanced his seven assists with seven turnovers, and though he finished with 21 points, his impact on the game was a mixed bag.

• Despite having one of the most effective defenses in the league following the Carmelo Anthony trade, the Nuggets have a handful of bad defensive habits. The most blatant may be their tendency to over-switch. Teams around the league will switch on screens in dangerous positions, but the Nuggets seem resigned to switch on fairly rudimentary ball- and off-ball screens for almost no reason at all. Raymond Felton ended up defending Durant on several possessions as a result, which forced the Nuggets to commit another defender to Durant and opened up easy scoring opportunities for the Thunder.

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