The Oklahoma City Thunder shot just 36% from the field in Game 5, but still eked out a 100-97 victory over the Denver Nuggets, taking the series 4-1. Kevin Durant led the way for the Thunder, scoring a game-high 41 points, including 16 of the team's final 20 to seal the victory.
While the Thunder were the aggressors down the stretch, the officiating played a major role in shifting the balance in Game 5. During the regular season, the Nuggets led the NBA in both free throws made and attempted. Although much of those numbers included Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, they still got to the line at about the same rate after the trade. Yet in Game 5, the Thunder shot 42 free throws to the Nuggets 21.
There is no doubt that the Thunder attacked the basket more in Game 5, but not enough to double the amount of free throw attempts for the Nuggets. The officials seemed to think that any time there was any contact on Durant, Russell Westbrook, or any other Thunder player, that a foul had to be called.
Add to that, late in the 4th quarter Kevin Durant was called for a back court violation by the official standing right at the center line of the court. Somehow, the official all the way under the Thunder basket overturned the call and the refs reviewed the play. Although the correct call was made in that Durant did not go backcourt, it seems incredible that an official halfway down the court could make that call.
That said, the referees did not decide this series; the Thunder were the better team and deserve to move on to the next round. Here are the reasons the Nuggets are going home after round one for the seventh time in eight years.
1. Poor Play in Crunch Time
The Nuggets had several chances in games 1, 3, and 5 to close out Oklahoma City in the 4th quarter, but they could never tighten the clamps on the defensive end or hit big shots to increase the lead. In all three of those games, the Nuggets had a lead in the fourth quarter but consistently allowed the Thunder back into the game with untimely fouls, poor defense, or lack of offensive execution.
2. Poor Free Throw Shooting
For a team that got to the line so often in the regular season (and in Games 1-4 of this series), the Nuggets had several opportunities to get easy points but failed to do so. Denver for the series shot under 70% from the charity stripe. But it was not only the big men, such as Nene and Kenyon Martin, who continued to brick foul shots. Even normally reliable free throw shooters such as Danilo Gallinari, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton struggled as well. Maybe it was the pressure, or maybe it was because it was the first playoff experience for several players, but in the postseason you have to cash in at the line.
3. Inability to Control the Thunder Bench
This is the biggest and possibly most overlooked aspect of the series. Every game at the start of the second quarter, Thunder coach Scott Brooks would take out BOTH Russell Westbrook AND Kevin Durant. With these two players accounting for more than half the Thunder offense it would seem like the Nuggets would have a field day, especially since the Denver bench is so deep. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, whose lineup often contained some combination of starters and Felton, Smith, Wilson Chandler, Al Harrington or Chris "Birdman" Andersen, they were unable to contain the likes of Eric Maynor, James Harden, Nick Collison and Daequan Cook. Collison routinely dominated the boards, and Maynor, Harden and Cook knocked down clutch threees.
The Thunder out-rebounded the Nuggets in every game, especially capitalizing on the offensive glass. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka had their way with Martin and Nene, and the young, athletic Thunder proved too much for the Nuggets. If the Nuggets want to compete in the postseason in the next few years rebounding is a priority.
The Nuggets can try to blame their numerous injuries for the loss. Although only Arron Afflalo missed time in this series (games 1 and 2), several players including Felton, Lawson and Gallinari,played through pain. The Nuggets can now use this off-season to recover physically, gel as a team, and figure out their plan for the future. With so many solid pieces, loads of cap space, and several draft picks, the Nuggets are using Thunder GM Sam Presti's formula to try and rise to the top of the west.