Late rally falls short as Nuggets lose Game 3 to the Thunder

Game 3: Thunder 97, Nuggets 94

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.”Theodore Roosevelt

As Nuggets coach George Karl met with the media Saturday, he referenced the famous Citizenship in a Republic speech that President Roosevelt delivered in Paris.

He was unaware that those inspiring words were uttered on April 23, 1910 – exactly 101 years before Karl’s team would step into the arena and strive valiantly to climb back into its best-of-seven playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“You’ve got to understand that these moments are precious,” Karl said. “We have an opportunity to regroup and reprove ourselves to people who are doubting us. It’s a fantastic opportunity to challenge yourself. To do it, you’ve got to trust each other; you’ve got to believe in each other.”

That belief will be tested more than ever after a 97-94 home loss left the Nuggets one win from elimination in their first-round series against the Thunder.

The Nuggets forced a Game 7 after losing the first three games against the Utah Jazz in 1994, but no team has ever come back from an 0-3 deficit to win an NBA series. Game 4 is Monday at the Pepsi Center.

“Sitting here and saying, ‘Yeah, we’re just going to go beat the Thunder four straight times,’ it’s not a likely thing,” Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo said. “But what is a likely thing is for us to beat them one time.

“I could care less about history, I can care less about these past three games. Take care of your game Monday and then make them beat you. Make them finish you off. If they’re going to finish us off, make them do it. Make them do it, or we’re going to be here.”

Afflalo made his postseason debut after sitting out the first two games of the series while recovering from a strained left hamstring. He hit his first three shots – including two three-pointers – in the game’s first five minutes but finished with 13 points on 4-of-12 shooting.

"I had fresh legs, a lot of energy and effort there," Afflalo said. "Not being in the best basketball shape, fatigue kind of wore on with me a little bit. But there’s no excuse. I had my opportunities, just as everyone else did."

Nothing came easy for Afflalo and his teammates as the Nuggets struggled from the field (37.2 percent) and the free-throw line (30-of-45). The 15 misses from the line were the most by a Denver team in the postseason since May 2, 1977.

“You can’t be disappointed in how hard our guys worked,” Karl said. “They were intently into the game. They gave tremendous energy to the purpose.

“I think we’re all a little frustrated that offensively we can’t find some answers. I think we’re actually executing and getting some good shots. It’s just the confidence of making some of them. Then the free-throw line is a little nightmarish right now.”

For all their struggles, the Nuggets had a three-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but Oklahoma City outscored Denver 21-8 over an eight-minute span to take control of the game.

“We’ve yet to establish a comfort zone on the scoreboard,” Afflalo said. “We haven’t shown the ability to pull away from them, to put some pressure on them.”

To their credit, the Nuggets made the Thunder sweat in the game’s final 49 seconds, improbably cutting a 10-point deficit to one. During that stretch, Oklahoma City missed three free throws and committed a careless turnover, while J.R. Smith knocked down two three-pointers for Denver.

Trailing by three with 10.5 second to go, the Nuggets had a chance to tie the game, but Smith was forced to take a tough shot while being defended aggressively by James Harden.

“I thought it would’ve had a better chance of going in if I didn’t get fouled,” Smith said. “But unfortunately they didn’t call it and the game was over.”

The Nuggets now need a victory to keep their season alive.

“We’ve still got a chance,” point guard Raymond Felton said. “It’s going to be tough, but they won four or five in a row against us. We can do the same thing. We’ve just got to put it in our minds that we can do it.”

The Thunder have actually won six in row against Denver. They’ve done it by hitting timely shots, making free throws, rebounding with consistency and challenging the Nuggets to score from the perimeter by crowding the paint defensively.

Oklahoma City also got a career night from forward Serge Ibaka in Game 3. Ibaka, who averaged 9.9 points and 7.6 rebounds during the regular season, had 22 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots Saturday night.

Kevin Durant added 26 points, while Russell Westbrook had 23 to help the Thunder move one game from its first playoff series victory since relocating from Seattle in 2008.

Perhaps the Nuggets can channel some magic from 1994. Before going the distance against Utah, they erased an 0-2 deficit and won three elimination games against the top-seeded SuperSonics, who were coached by Karl.

“It’s like when you’re on the playground: You know if you lose you’re probably going to have to sit on the bench for another hour, hour-and-a-half to get back on the court,” Karl said. “You push the buttons as desperate (as you can) and (get) excited about the opportunity.”

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for, 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...