DENVER — If one image could tell the story of Tuesday night’s clash between the Thunder and Nuggets it came with 22 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Both teams big men, Kendrick Perkins and Nene, stood in a forehead-to-forehead stare down. The two had just gotten tangled up underneath the basket. Bumping occurred. Pushing ensued. Words were exchanged.
With that, the stage became set for what is now all but guaranteed to be the 4-5 matchup in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
And with the Thunder’s 101-94 win inside the Pepsi Center, Oklahoma City is now all but assured to maintain the fourth seed, the Northwest Division title and home-court advantage in the opening series.
The win increased the Thunder’s lead on the Nuggets to four games with each team having just five games remaining. A rematch is scheduled for Friday inside Oklahoma City Arena. But just one more Thunder win or one more Nuggets loss will wrap up the division, the fourth spot and home court advantage.
Afterward, hardly a soul dared to step away from the company line inside the Thunder’s locker room, where the message suggested the team hadn’t accomplished anything special.
“It was a big win for us after losing two in a row,” said Thunder forward Kevin Durant, who scored a game-high 32 points. “I think we’re putting more emphasis on (bouncing back) from losing two in a row than trying to clinch the division.”
But go back to Perkins’ stare down, and the Thunder’s commanding 13-point first-half lead, and you’ll find a different story.
Fully aware of what was at stake, Oklahoma City jumped on Denver from the start, holding the high-powered Nuggets to 16 first-quarter points. From the start, the Nuggets clearly struggled with the Thunder’s length on the perimeter and in the paint, finding it difficult to get off shots without a hand in their face.
“They showed they wanted to make a statement if and when we see them in the playoffs,” Nuggets coach George Karl.
The Thunder won for the first time in Denver since the team relocated to Oklahoma City. The franchise’s last win at Denver was in March 2007, a streak of seven straight defeats. The win also snapped the Nuggets’ 10-game home winning streak. The last nine Nuggets home wins have come since Carmelo Anthony was traded to New York.
Tuesday’s win certainly could build confidence as the Thunder goes into a potential playoff series with Denver. The franchise’s last seven losses at Denver have come by an average margin of 19.2 points.
“The way I look at, we lost to them in the first game here by five and we played a good game.
Blog: Darnell Mayberry's observations from Denver