In just about every way you could measure it, the Nuggets had the league’s best offense this season. They led the league in points per game (107.5) and offensive efficiency (109.5). In terms of eFG% they were second at 52.56 percent. They topped the league also in free throw rate (36.7).
But in the three games versus the Thunder? That offense hasn’t been anything close to what it was.
In the three games thus far, the Nuggets are averaging just 95.3 points per game. Their overall field goal percentage is down almost six percent, their offensive efficiency is just 98.76 and while their free throw attempts have held firm, they’re making way less.
Stop and think about that. The top offense in the entire league is scoring more than 10 points fewer per 100 possessions. In a game where things are getting slowed down to around 90 possessions a game, that means the Nuggets offense is simply being suffocated.
The Thunder reestablished themselves as a good defensive team after the Kendrick Perkins trade but this is just ridiculous. The Nuggets were universally praised for their ball movement and team play after the Carmelo Anthony trade but against OKC in these three games, they just haven’t found any sort of rhythm. Really the best they looked was the opening minutes of Game 1 where they started 7-7 from the field. After that, they’re shooting close to under 40 percent.
What’s been the big deal? Why have the Thunder stifled Denver’s high-powered, balanced attack? I think it’s pretty simple. OKC has done two things: slowed the Nuggets down and let them run their offense.
What do I mean by the second one? I think it’s been a subtle plan by the Thunder to allow the Nuggets to try and run their usual stuff. The Nuggets love to work inside-out and run weakside screens to free up shooters, while also using penetration to score at the rim. The Thunder haven’t necessarily tried to shut that down. The reason being because Oklahoma City knows it can stop what the Nuggets are good at.
Look at the numbers. Denver has attempted 80 shots at the rim in these three games (26.6 per game). By comparison, OKC has taken only 56. Denver has taken 25 shots in the paint (OKC 26). Where Denver isn’t getting shots is in the mid-range where its only taken 64.
So OKC is letting Denver get shots inside, but here’s the interesting part: the Nuggets are shooting just 58 percent at the rim and only 28 percent inside the paint. Absolutely nothing is easy for them right now. Between Serge Ibaka’s giant paw swinging at everything tossed up inside and Kendrick Perkins’ pushing people down everywhere, scoring in the paint is not easy versus the Thunder.
Perkins' foul on Wilson Chandler to start Game 2 said it all. You won’t walk to the rim against us. During the regular season, Denver shot 60 percent at the rim and 38 percent inside the paint. In terms of mid-range, the Nuggets haven’t been that much off their normal numbers. The 3-point line though, is another story. During the series so far, the Nuggets are shooting just 30.9 percent from 3. From the non-corner spots, just 29 percent. And like I said, this is a team that loves its 3-point shot.
What’s been so impressive is how the Thunder have been able to plug the paint and contest everything inside, while also recovering on shooters. That’s the gift of Perk, really. He handles Nene one-on-one and everyone else stays home on their shooter. Look at Ty Lawson. He hit 10-11 from deep in a game the last week of the season. So far this series, he’s only taken four 3-pointers. Danilo Gallinari is just 3-9. Raymond Felton, 2-10. Even with his little streak to end Game 3, J.R. Smith is only 4-13.
Like I said, the Thunder have sort of embraced what the Nuggets do well and just stopped them from doing it well. Scott Brooks saw that the matchups favored his team and instead of trying to outsmart George Karl with some genius adjustment, he just put his guys out there to stop Denver from what it does.
The Thunder’s defense is the reason this series is 3-0. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook won Game 1. The defense took 2 and 3 pretty much entirely. I re-watched the fourth quarter from Game 3 and it’s just unbelievable how confused the Nuggets look in trying to run their offense. There is just no open man to be found anywhere. Everything is contested. Everything comes after three or four perimeter passes that lead no where.
OKC held Denver without a point for almost five minutes in Game 3. And quietly on the other end scored a basket here and made a free throw there. The lead suddenly was eight with four minutes to go. That’s what good defense does and that’s the reason people talk about it winning things. And right now, the Thunder’s playing the kind of defense that can win things.