Play gets physical in potential first-round playoff preview
It was a scene that could have been replayed on ESPN or the Discovery Channel.
After battling for a rebound, Nuggets center Nene and Oklahoma City Thunder center Kendrick Perkins touched foreheads like a pair of elk locking antlers before their teammates moved in to diffuse the situation.
If this was a first-round playoff preview, it promises to be quite a series between two young teams that aren’t about to give an inch in their quest for respect in the Western Conference.
“I think we all have in the back of our heads that we could be playing this team seven or eight more times,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “Everybody was holding their ground pretty well, but I didn’t think it was too bad. They showed that they wanted to make a statement if and when we get them in the playoffs.”
With the Nuggets closing ground in the Northwest Division title chase, Oklahoma City held Denver scoreless for nearly five minutes in the fourth quarter and held on for a 101-94 victory Tuesday night at the Pepsi Center.
The Thunder (51-26) leads the Nuggets (47-30) by four games with five to play in the race for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Oklahoma City also holds the tiebreaker against Denver, so the Nuggets would have to win out and have the Thunder lose five in a row to overtake OKC for the Northwest Division crown.
“It was big for us, especially after losing two in a row,” Thunder forward Kevin Durant said. “I think we were putting more emphasis on losing two in a row than trying to clinch the division. We are a resilient team and want to bounce back after every loss. Tonight was a good way to do it.”
Durant finished with a game-high 32 points to help offset a career-high 28 points from Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson. Danilo Gallinari added 17 points for Denver, which had won 10 straight at home and six in a row overall.
“They had a better game tonight,” Nene said. “Both teams played the same, but they made a lot of shots. This loss is going to help us play tough for the next game, more hard, more together and more physical.”
If things get much more physical, the NBA might have to install ropes around the court and add Mills Lane to the officiating crew.
Nene and Perkins resembled a pair of heavyweights when they engaged in their staredown after tussling in the paint with 22 seconds left in the first half.
“He needs to be careful,” Nene said. “I just try to play hard, but not dirty. If you play dirty with me, I’m not going to step back for no one in this league. That’s me. I’m very nice. I try to play hard, but if you do stuff on me, for sure I’m going to come back.”
Nene and Perkins were whistled for double technical fouls, as were Gallinari and Durant after exchanging words in the game’s final seconds. In all, the two teams combined for 52 fouls and four techs.
“Everybody’s a competitor. Everybody wants to win,” Lawson said. “It’s always heated. If somebody gets bumped wrong, it can turn into a fire.”
Denver will face the Thunder again Friday in Oklahoma City, and the two teams would meet in the first round of the playoffs if the standings remain the same. The Nuggets lead No. 6 Portland by 2½ games, while Oklahoma City is two games behind No. 3 Dallas.
“It’s a rivalry, so I can’t wait for the playoffs series if we get them,” Lawson said.
Regardless of their first-round opponent, the Nuggets will have to shore up a few things before the postseason begins.
Denver erased a 13-point deficit Tuesday night but missed 8 of 15 free throws in the third quarter and trailed by two heading to the fourth.
Lawson’s three-point play and a layup by J.R. Smith gave Denver its largest lead of the game 46 seconds into the final quarter, but the Thunder responded with a 16-0 run that took some air out of the building.
The Nuggets were able to cut the deficit to four in the final minute, but the Thunder held on by hitting 7-of-8 free throws down the stretch.
“We struggled tonight more than we have in a while,” Karl said. “We just have to forget about it the game, learn from it and try to beat Dallas (on Wednesday).”