Game 1 of the series between the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder stood out as a highly entertaining contest in an opening weekend full of highly entertaining contests, but the reprise in Game 2 couldn’t quite measure up as a competitive spectacle. Blame the Thunder; OKC used a dominant first quarter as a catalyst for spectacular game-long performance, and endured Denver’s runs along the way to win 106-89.
However, the most interesting dynamic in Game 2 may have been the complete inversion of both teams’ offensive identities. Structurally, the Oklahoma City Thunder are as traditional as contenders come. They have two dynamic stars at their core, surrounded by a defensive specialist on the wing, an enforcer in the middle and an x-factor. They have some depth, but generally run about eight deep.
The Nuggets are a bit of a different beast. They rely on having a stable of versatile and capable contributors to overwhelm and outrun their opponents. Denver relies on a collective offensive effectiveness and an aggressive defensive philosophy, neither of which is exactly possible without contributions from one to eight (or sometimes nine or 10).
Yet in Game 2, it was the Thunder who benefited from a balanced attack while the Nuggets struggled to find competence among their regulars. Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and James Harden scored a combined 40 points for OKC, providing a huge boost to the typically star-centric outfit. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were still productive, but they were able to rely on the efficient production of their supporting cast and pick their spots to be aggressive.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets were forced to lean heavily on Al Harrington, as only Ty Lawson, Nene, and Raymond Felton were otherwise able to contribute reliably. To be fair, Harrington played relatively well, but his sudden opportunity was more a testament to the failures of his teammates than any particularly outstanding element of his performance. Kenyon Martin didn’t make much of an impact on either end of the court. Danilo Gallinari couldn’t consistently create scoring opportunities. Wilson Chandler forced shots (and didn’t make a single one), all while putting in subpar defensive effort. J.R. Smith was effectively banished from the rotation after seven early minutes of play. Between widespread struggles and the absence of Arron Afflalo, Denver was surprisingly short-handed against an opponent playing excellent team basketball. Things went about as poorly as one would expect.
OKC looked like the best in the West on Wednesday and Denver something decidedly less than. The problem with the Nuggets doesn’t lie in their formula, but in their execution. Denver isn’t incapable of winning against quality opponents, but the odds are certainly stacked against them when they struggle this mightily on both ends of the court. The Nuggets just needed something more: scoring from the wings, stronger rebounding, better team defense overall, or even a superlative individual performance from one of many candidates. None of the above came, and the Thunder looked dominant as a result.
Denver’s defense and depth can typically throw opponents off-guard enough to allow some wiggle room, but Oklahoma City was simply clicking on another level on Wednesday, one on which a struggling Thunder team had no way of competing. Give OKC’s defense (and offense, for that matter) the appropriate credit, just don’t invoke the name of Carmelo Anthony; the Nuggets didn’t experience problems because they didn’t have a star player, but merely due to the fact that the typically effective players on their roster didn’t perform as they’re capable of performing.