Thundering start hints at future heights

April, 21, 2011
4/21/11
12:52
AM ET
Hollinger By John Hollinger
ESPN.com
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- The Thunder won’t be planning any championship parades just yet, not when this group has yet to win a single playoff series.

But it was hard to watch Oklahoma City’s onslaught in the first 15 minutes of its 106-89 win over the Nuggets on Wednesday without thinking the words “championship caliber.” The Thunder’s domination was so complete that they were up by 26 points, 43-17, with 8:44 left in the second quarter and from there cruised home to victory.

It had all the usual sweetness of the scoring talents of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but what made this a truly special performance was Oklahoma City’s defensive intensity. On Wednesday night, we saw the effect of the midseason trade that imported center Kendrick Perkins and promoted power forward Serge Ibaka, as the two combined to dominate the paint.

Perkins set the physical tone by flooring Wilson Chandler with a hard foul early in the game, while Ibaka owned the boards. The Nuggets didn’t get a clean look at the rim until the middle of the second quarter; by then, Denver was 5-for-20 from the field with eight turnovers and staring at a three-touchdown deficit. The duo also dominated the glass, producing a 17-5 advantage in offensive rebounds that was the key difference in the final box score.

“We’ve always been a good rebounding team as a group,” Scott Brooks said. “Now we have bigs that really get in there and battle every time.

“[Perkins] brings toughness; he brings a physical attitude every time. It’s who he is. He does it in practice, he does it during the game, he does it in shootaround. I’m sure he does it when he takes his kids to school.”

In contrast to Game 1, when Denver made its first seven shots, the Thunder's energy and deafening home crowd overwhelmed the visitors from the start. And while the Nuggets made a few runs later in the game, one doesn’t easily come back from 26 down in a road playoff game. The game was essentially over early in the second quarter.

"We didn't want those guys to come out and have a shooting barrage like they did in Game 1," Durant said. "I think we forced them into some tough shots. They missed a few easy ones, but I think we did a good job of closing the paint."

“They were energized, they were more physical, they were quicker, probably smarter,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “They did a much better job in protecting the basket. And I thought we settled for jump shots.”

The Nuggets are too good to take this lying down, one suspects, and Game 3 on Saturday in Denver should give them an opportunity to get back into the series -- especially with home-altitude advantage in the Mile High City’s notoriously difficult environment. For the Nuggets, the silver lining from this game is that a few second-half lineups might provide more success next game.

Karl opened the second half with Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson together in the same backcourt, and strongly hinted he’d start Game 3 with that alignment, with a struggling Chandler likely headed to the bench. Felton played 36 minutes off the bench and Lawson played 37 as the starter, so the two essentially are playing starter’s minutes anyway. And with the altitude, the two-guard front lets them push the tempo and run opponents into submission.

“Starting the little guys in the second half showed signs of being successful,” Karl said. “My comfort zone is to have Raymond on Westbrook than Ty. There is a chance, if Arron [Afflalo] doesn’t play, we could start that way on Saturday.”

The Nuggets also got productive minutes off the pine from Al Harrington, whose floor spacing was an effective weapon, especially against the Thunder’s second unit. He finished with 15 points and likely will see the bulk of the minutes as the top frontcourt reserve the rest of the series, pushing Chris Andersen (scoreless in six minutes) into a more limited role.

J.R. Smith, meanwhile, might not see the court much. Afflalo said he’ll return Saturday, partly due to the Nuggets’ increasing desperation, adding another guard to the rotation. Even in his absence, Smith played only six minutes in Game 2.

“When [Smith] was in the game, the floodgates really exploded,” Karl said. “It went from 10, 12 to almost 30. I just had to find somebody that had a rhythm.”

There were no such problems on the Thunder side, as they got contributions from all 10 rotation players and, surprisingly, beat the deeper Nuggets in bench points 37-35.

And while it’s a little early to start pondering the Thunder’s future when they’re only halfway through the current series, one can’t help but look at the struggles of the Lakers and Spurs thus far and think that Oklahoma City, as young as it might be, has much more than a puncher’s chance in this season’s Western Conference.

Certainly, it appeared that way to anyone watching tonight. Oklahoma City’s early eruption provided a scary reminder to the rest of the conference that this team, as good as it is now, still is just scratching the surface of its potential.

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