By Chris Tomasson, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 26 2011 9:48AM
DENVER -- In what has been a Magical Mystery Tour of a season for the Denver Nuggets, it sounded as if they borrowed from The Beatles and declared, "You say goodbye and I say hello.''
While many were ready to bid adieu to the Nuggets on Monday night, they sure didn't feel that way despite trailing Oklahoma City 3-0 in a Western Conference first-round series. An advertisement on the Pepsi Center jumbotron in the second half noted that first-round playoff tickets are still available.
After the Nuggets saved their season with a 104-101 win, forward Danilo Gallinari said in an interview before the fans, "See you soon.'' Gallinari must believe his Nuggets will win Wednesday's Game 5 at Oklahoma City and have another home game Friday.
"You got to think that way,'' Gallinari said. "Our confidence has got to be high confidence. So we want to think like that.''
Nuggets guard J.R. Smith has similar thoughts. Then again, when has the confidence of Smith, whose shooting range extends to the club level, ever waned?
"I don't plan on it,'' Smith said of Monday possibly being the team's last home game of the season. "We're competitors, and we plan on winning. We never plan on losing.''
While no team has come back from a 3-0 deficit to win an NBA playoff series, the Nuggets at least brought back signs of the gang that finished a tumultuous regular season on a magical 18-7 spurt after star forward Carmelo Anthony was traded to New York on Feb. 22. The Nuggets captured the fancy of NBA folks with a gritty and deep team that had a balanced scoring attack.
The problem in the first three games for the Nuggets was nobody was scoring much, especially when it counted. In Game 3, no player managed more than 15 points.
But bloodhounds were dispatched Monday, and scorers were found. It all started with Nuggets coach George Karl telling point guard Ty Lawson he needed to be more aggressive.
Lawson listened. While he only had three assists, he drove to the basket with regularity and finished with 27 points. Lawson shot 8-of-16 from the field and, to illustrate his aggressiveness, was 9-of-9 from the foul line in what he called "the biggest game of my life.''
"Coach was telling me to just attack,'' Lawson said. "He says that when I attack it fuels the rest of the team.''
Gallinari did likewise, scoring all 18 of his points in the second half. Gallinari's offense was quite needed after he had been mostly paranormal in the first 3 ½ games of the series.
Gallinari, who averaged 14.7 points for Denver after his Feb. 22 acquisition from New York, had managed just 10.3 a night in the first three games on 10-of-25 shooting. He then went 0-of-2 in the first half Monday.
"Probably mental aggressiveness that I have to improve,'' Gallinari, who shot 6-of-11 in the second half while attacking the basket and going 3-of-4 on three-pointers, said of what he was able to do better. "I have to try to play like that for 48 minutes and not just for some stretches.''
Even though they found some guys with hot hands, it still was an adventure at the end for the Nuggets. They watched as Oklahoma City cut a 97-87 deficit with less than three minutes left to 98-96 and Thunder guard Russell Westbrook had a 3-pointer rim out with 30 seconds remaining.
Westbrook two other crucial 3-pointers, too: one with 8 seconds left and Oklahoma City down 101-98 and one from 35 feet at the buzzer with the Thunder trailing 104-101. He complained to no avail about being fouled on the latter.
"I thought they were going in,'' Westbrook said of the shots. "Unfortunately, they didn't fall.''
Plenty of shots, though, were falling during the second half for Thunder stars Westbrook and forward Kevin Durant, who both scored 21 points following shaky first halves. Durant finished with a game-high 31 and Westbrook had 30, no doubt needing to ice his shooting arm after firing away to the tune of 12-of-30 from the field.
There wasn't much offense for the Thunder after those two. Forward Serge Ibaka had 13 points to go along with 14 rebounds but nobody else scored more than seven. Meanwhile, the Nuggets had six players in double figures, including Smith with 15.
"There's no pressure on them so they're playing free,'' said Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins. "They're just making crazy shots right now, putting their head down and driving to the basket. We have to adjust.''
The Nuggets actually shot just 38.6 percent. But they made up for it by going 31-of-44 from the free-throw line, including 16-of-20 in the fourth quarter.
The result was the Thunder has fallen from the unbeaten ranks in the postseason. Only Boston, which swept New York in the first round, still can make such a claim.
"Everybody was talking about us getting swept and things like that,'' Lawson said. "There was a lot of emotion involved in this game ... Everybody was counting us out.''
The Nuggets, though, are still standing. While many were ready to say goodbye to their season, they're saying hello to the return of the team that closed the regular season on such an impressive run.
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