Home court could help Nuggets get back in series vs. OKC

Denver's 33-8 record at Pepsi Center was third-best in NBA

Despite trailing their first-round playoff series 2-0, the Denver Nuggets are conceding nothing to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Nuggets came in for a team meeting Thursday but did not practice as coach George Karl tried to give the players a mental and physical break in advance of Game 3 Saturday at the Pepsi Center.

“It's going to be a great Easter weekend,” Karl said. “We're going to win two games, and it's going to be a best-of-3 series, which really makes it exciting.”

Karl and the Nuggets remain optimistic after two very incongruent games in Oklahoma City. They were in position to steal Game 1, only to see the Thunder escape with a four-point win. Denver fell behind by 26 points in Game 2 and never fully recovered in a 17-point loss.

Though there was a lot to be desired in Game 2 Wednesday night, it wasn’t so much the lack of execution that bothered Karl. The Nuggets got outrebounded 54-31, including 17-5 on the offensive glass, and they lacked a sense of urgency early in the game, resulting in an19-point deficit in the first quarter.

“My only disappointment is I thought we got outworked, and that's hard to swallow,” Karl said. “The first 15 minutes of that game, it wasn't Xs and Os. It was about hustle points and outrunning and outrebounding, hitting and screening. We didn't do anything at an intensity level that was respectful of the competition level and the game. From that point forward, I think it was OK.”

Watching from the bench, Nuggets shooting guard Arron Afflalo felt helpless as the Thunder confidently strutted to its fourth straight victory over Denver in 16 days.

“It’s frustrating the way that we lost. That was kind of embarrassing,” Afflalo said. “But they executed, they played well. They’re playing with a lot of confidence. In my mind, that’s all a mental approach. That’s nothing physical. That can be changed in a snap of a finger.”

Afflalo worked out Thursday and intends to make his 2011 playoff debut after sitting out 15 of 20 games with a strained left hamstring. Karl said he likely would bring Afflalo off the bench in order to better manage his minutes.

“He's one of our most tough-minded, fundamentally sound, hard-nosed, winning guys on our team,” Karl said. “Before he got hurt, he was playing the most minutes on the team. He's a competitive, winning kid. Skill-wise, he doesn't have greatness but he has ‘darn good’ in a lot of areas.”

Afflalo, a strong defender who averaged career-high 12.6 points in 69 games, received four second-place votes and one third in the NBA’s Most Improved Player balloting. He adds another dimension for the Nuggets as they try to slow Oklahoma City’s duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who played one year with Afflalo at UCLA.

Durant is averaging 32 points and Westbrook 26 in the series, but complementary players such as Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, James Harden and Nick Collison were equally effective in Game 2. Those role players, however, seem to feed off the two superstars.

“I’m not going to stop either one by myself. It’s going to be a team effort, as it’s always been,” Afflalo said. “But I’ll use my ability to try to take advantage of them in the ways that I can.

“They’re still very good. They’ll play well, they’ll make shots. But I think a combination of me on them, plus the help, plus the different energy level, plus our atmosphere can be beneficial to us. There’s no guarantees in this game. They can come in here and play well, but we plan to make it an interesting series.”

With a 33-8 home record, the Nuggets have reason to be confident about winning two games and sending the series back to Oklahoma City for Game 5. The Thunder have lost seven of its past eight games in Denver.

“I like these guys,” Karl said. “I think (we) might have been shaken by how talented, how committed Oklahoma City is. I'll give you that. But they gained nothing. It's home-court advantage. It's holding serve. It's just like that fifth set in Wimbledon, it could go 56-56 and we're holding serve.”

Nuggets such as Chris Andersen and J.R. Smith tend to thrive on the emotion of the home crowd. Neither played in the second half of Game 2, but Karl intends to call their number again Saturday night.

“Whenever I step in this building and step on this court, the fans embrace me,” Smith said. “I love playing here. I’ve always risen, I think, to the peak of my game here … I still think we’re in a great position to make some things happen. We’ve got a lot of weapons. Just got to put them to use.”

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Aaron's full bio...