Nene's big night not enough for Nuggets in playoff opener
OKLAHOMA CITY – Nuggets coach George Karl compares the postseason to a final exam.
The players spend several months learning the material; they just don’t know exactly what’s going to be on the test.
The Nuggets received a passing grade from their coach Sunday night in Game 1 of their Western Conference playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but they will be back in study hall Monday trying to improve.
Showing no fear in a sea of blue at Oklahoma City Arena, the Nuggets got a huge performance from Nene and erased an eight-point deficit in the game’s final six minutes but couldn’t quite close the deal in a 107-103 loss to the Thunder.
“As hard as we’re playing, I think we’ll be able to make some adjustments and make it a helluva series,” Karl said. “I told the team it’s just the beginning of the process. Make sure you learn when you lose and don’t get too confident when you win.”
The Thunder was brimming with confidence after beating the Nuggets twice in a four-day span late in the season, but it took a career playoff-high 41 points from Kevin Durant, 31 points from Russell Westbrook and a pivotal no-call in the final minutes to escape with a victory.
With the Nuggets on an 11-2 run, Thunder center Kendrick Perkins tipped in a miss by Westbrook that gave Oklahoma City a 102-101 lead with 1:05 to go. Perkins swiped the net on the play and appeared to touch the ball when it was still in the cylinder.
“Goaltending,” Denver forward Kenyon Martin. “Everybody in the building and everybody on TV saw it. But you can’t blame the game on one play. It was just one play. We still had a chance. We were down one, 102-101. We can’t let one play determine the game.”
Starting with Martin’s long jumper at the end of the shot clock, the Nuggets missed their final four shots and committed a turnover. They also finished 21-for-33 from the free-throw line and made just 1-of-11 three-pointers after hitting 3-of-5 in the first quarter.
“We’re upset right now, but we’ll figure it out,” Denver point guard Raymond Felton said. “It’s a little frustrating. We missed a lot of free throws and didn’t shoot as well as we normally shoot the three. The upside is we didn’t play good basketball and we only lost by four points. We still had a chance to win the game, so I guess you could look at it as a positive. But it’s still a loss.”
Nene nearly helped the Nuggets overcome their shooting deficiencies by running the floor and attacking the basket. Perkins, who antagonized Nene in the late-season meetings, was no match for the Brazilian big man, who scored 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting.
“I’m sure he had a lot of motivation for this game,” Denver forward Danilo Gallinari said of Nene. “He was really focused and came out real aggressive … I’m really happy with him because if he plays like that, we have a great chance to have a great series and beat these guys.”
Perkins finally slowed Nene 58 seconds into the second half, but it wasn’t intentional. Nene had to be helped off the court after hitting his left knee on Perkins’ mental knee brace. He went to the locker room for a quick evaluation but returned to the game eight minutes later.
“Sometimes it’s a hard spot because you have to make a decision to come back or stay (out),” Nene said. “It’s your body. You know how you feel. I said, ‘You know what? It’s playoffs. You’ve got to go. You’ve got to play and give your best.’ That’s what I did.”
Nene’s coach and teammates lauded his toughness and effectiveness.
“Nene was big-time. He was a first-class big man and I thought he kept his composure against Perkins,” Karl said.
“It has to be one of his best playoff games. I think he’s excited to be a part of this team and he was our leader in a lot of ways. We’re going to need him to be that important in many more games to come.”
Said Felton: “Nene did a great job. He accepted the challenge down there with those (Oklahoma City) big guys. He definitely did his job. Now we’ve got to come together as a team and figure this thing out.”
The first order of business will be containing All-Stars Durant and Westbrook, who combined to make 25-of-45 shots. Reserve guard Eric Maynor was the only other Thunder player in double figures (12 points), while the Nuggets were characteristically balanced with eight players scoring at least eight points.
“We let their two best players go for 70. Can’t have that,” Martin said. “I don’t think we have to have somebody go for 40 in order to win. We just can’t let their two best players do what they did. We’ve got to limit one of those guys. We’ve got to see what we can do better, because what we did Game 1 didn’t work.”
Having been to the conference finals three times and the NBA Finals twice in his career, Martin knows that each game will get exponentially tougher for Oklahoma City. Sunday was just the first test in a best-of-seven exam; Game 2 is Wednesday.
“The series is not over by any stretch of the imagination,” Martin said. “It’s just one game. That’s the beauty of it. It’s a series. They did what they had to do Game 1. It’s a matter of us going back to the drawing board trying to get Game 2.”