Battle for Respect in the Western Conference

(Oklahoma City, OK) As the fourth and fifth seeded teams in the NBA playoffs the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets are fighting tooth and nail to separate themselves from each other and from the middle of the pack in the Western Conference. In the process both teams look to gain a measure of respect not only from each other but from the rest of the league.

First there’s Kevin Durant, the NBA’s scoring champion for the 2010-11 season and for the second consecutive year. Not as much a household name as LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony. Durant totes his bible in one hand as he leaves the arena with his mother in Oklahoma City; a far cry from the bright lights of Carmelo’s New York City or LeBron’s bustling South Beach.

Then there’s the Denver Nuggets, void of any superstar after the departure of franchise player Carmelo Anthony. Without any one standout player the Nuggets led the NBA in scoring as a team for the 2010-11 season proving that the collective success of the team is greater than that of the egocentric individual.

With the opening round of the playoffs sixteen teams competed at the highest level with all eight games going down to the final plays to determine a winner. And, true to form, it was the Thunder-Nuggets matchup that put up the most points of all the games. Three of the top seeds lost in their playoff opener raising the stakes for the second tier teams.

The closely matched Thunder and Nuggets went last out of the opening round Game One series and like the rest went down to the wire. The Thunder struck first in game one with a 107-103 win in the closing seconds at the Ford Arena in Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant scored a playoff career high 41 points with Russell Westbrook adding an additional 31 points to stifle the Denver Nuggets.

The Nuggets opened up playing dominate basketball leading by as many as 13 points in the first half. In the first four and a half minutes of the game, the Nuggets were 7-for-7, including 2-for-2 on 3-pointers including Danilo Gallinari going 4-for-5 and Nene with 6-for-7 shooting. But it was the lights out shooting of Durant and Westbrook that kept the Thunder in striking distance.

Ultimately it was a missed goal tending call that gave the Thunder the go-ahead lead that the Nuggets never recovered from. Thunder center Kendrick Perkins tipped the ball on a Russell Westbrook miss and scored to put the Thunder ahead by one with 1:05 left to play in the game. The Thunder never looked back.

Trailing by three, 104-101 with :11 seconds left the Nuggets had a chance tie the game but Raymond Felton’s three-point attempt was way off the mark. Without any clear cut go-to-guy, no one in the arena knew who on the Nuggets would get the last shot. “I don’t think we’re going to beat this team with shots and execution at the end of the game,” Nuggets Coach George Karl said. “We’re going to beat them with stops and penetration and moving the ball and finding the open man.”

“There are a lot of ways to win games down the stretch, and I think big-time shooters, big-time scorers are one,” Karl went on to say. “But there are also a lot of other ways to win close games.”

Nene and Danilo Gallinari led the way for the Nuggets with 22 points and 18 points respectively. After the start of the second half Nene suffered a right knee contusion but did return to finish the game. The Nuggets were also without the services of starting guard Aaron Afflalo suffering from a groin injury.

“That’s a tough team. They’re tough to defend, tough to score against,” Kevin Durant said. “We did whatever it took to win that game. We dove on the floor, whatever it took. It was a hard-fought win.”

Although both teams are young and relatively inexperienced in the playoffs the Thunder may have the slight edge over the Denver players. Last season Durant and the Thunder pushed the world champion Los Angeles Lakers just short of seven games in the opening round of the playoffs.

Denver however, holds the edge in coaching with George Karl returning after missing the playoffs last season due to cancer treatment. Karl returns to face what used to be his former team the Seattle Supersonics, who moved to Oklahoma City as the Thunder.
(Contact Lenn Durant at [email protected] or 303-349-7424)