Durant closes the deal as Nuggets lose series to Thunder

By Aaron J. Lopez, Nuggets.com, 4-28-11

OKLAHOMA CITY – As his team prepared to enter a hostile arena and fight for playoff survival, Nuggets coach George Karl had video coordinator Nate Anderson cue up a clip from Gladiator.
“Whatever comes out of these gates, we've got a better chance of survival if we work together,” Maximus tells his fellow combatants. “If we stay together, we survive.”
For 44 minutes, 30 seconds Wednesday night, the Nuggets stayed together and appeared poised to live to fight another day in their first-round, Western Conference series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

They forced turnovers, knocked down three-pointers and scrapped their way to a nine-point lead with 3:30 left to play.

“I’ve been in a lot of games where seven-, eight-point leads with four minutes to go is very dangerous,” Karl said, “especially with an energy building like this.”

As it turned out, the danger inside Oklahoma City Arena was real and it wore a No. 35 jersey.

In an MVP-caliber performance, Kevin Durant scored 14 of his team’s final 18 points – and 41 overall – to propel the Thunder to a 100-97 victory that gave Oklahoma City a 4-1 series victory over the Nuggets.

“It doesn’t show by the record, but I think it was a good series,” Nuggets point guard Raymond Felton said. “We made them work. We made them come to play every night. We made them hit tough shots when they had to … The future for this team is very high.”

Outside of Oklahoma City’s 17-point rout in Game 2, the series was primarily played within five or six points, and Game 5 was no different.

Despite shooting 21 fewer free throws (42-21) and allowing 22 second-chance points, the Nuggets put themselves in position to force Game 6 by dictating the tempo and shooting better than 50 percent for most of the night.

Arron Afflalo’s two free throws with 4:15 to go gave Denver its biggest lead of the game, 91-82, before Durant broke loose from beyond the arc, in the paint and everywhere in between.

“When a guy gets going like that, I don’t care how many guys you put on Durant, he was probably going to make shots,” Karl said.

A favorable call in the final minute didn’t hurt either.

With the Thunder clinging to a one-point lead, Durant was called for a backcourt violation after catching an inbounds pass with 14.8 seconds remaining. The officiating crew quickly huddled and reversed the call, leaving the Nuggets perplexed.

“They said his momentum can take him backcourt,” Denver captain Kenyon Martin said. “I was like, ‘Really?’ I thought if he caught the ball on one side, there was no way possible you can cross the (halfcourt) line. If your momentum takes you out of bounds, you’re out of bounds. That one was a little confusing to me.”

Durant capitalized on the good fortune by draining a midrange jumper as the shot clock expired to give Oklahoma City a three-point lead with 12 seconds to go.

Durant then blocked J.R. Smith’s three-point attempt with 9 seconds left, and Afflalo missed a final three-pointer at the buzzer after breaking free from a double team in the corner. In all, Denver missed nine of its final 10 shots, while the Thunder went 6-for-7 down the stretch – and still shot just 36.6 percent for the game.

“Tough loss for us,” Karl said. “We didn’t close out this game. We didn’t close out Game 1. Both of them were very difficult to swallow.”

Karl then took a deep breath and tried to put a strange-but-successful 50-32 season into perspective.

“We will somewhere in the next week or so wake up and realize we had a helluva season,” he said. “I’m very thankful to be back coaching and being healthy. Just wish tonight I could’ve helped a little bit more. It’s going to be a tough pill – very bitter to get out of your system for a couple days. This one won’t be a 24-hour one. It will be a lot longer than that.”

The anguish and passion was visible in the Denver locker room as Afflalo buried his face in a towel for several minutes and Nene shook his head and struggled to find words through bloodshot eyes.

“I have the utmost respect for everybody in this locker room,” Martin said. “From everybody that’s been here all year to the new guys that came here (after the All-Star break) and did what they had to do to help us win.”

Karl shared that same sense of pride after watching his team persevere through early season uncertainty and win 18 of 25 games after the Feb. 22 trade that reshaped the roster and forced a young team to come together quicker than anyone could have anticipated.

“We have a lot of guys in that locker room that are banged up. They gave a great stand,” Karl said. “I’m proud to be a part of what they did. I think we have a bright future and a bright energy coming out of Denver through a year that had many, many different faces.”