DENVER — Kyle Speller starts every game with a question.
With the lights turned low, the Denver Nuggets' public address announcer bellows to a boisterous building, ‘Can you feel it?'
The visitors inside Pepsi Center definitely do. And it makes for quite the home-court advantage.
“The air is real thin here,” said Thunder guard Daequan Cook.
This is where the Oklahoma City Thunder must try to prolong its perfect playoff run, in a place where altitude plays tricks on your brain and puts a serious squeeze on your wind pipe.
Welcome to Denver, the site of Games 3 and 4 of the first-round series between the Thunder and Nuggets. Denver is nicknamed the Mile High City because it sits 5,280 feet above sea level, exactly one mile. Before the Thunder can conquer the Nuggets in these next two contests, it must first overcome playing against this one-mile high obstacle.
Ask anyone about Denver's elevation and they'll tell you it's not easy to play in. Players are going to get gassed. As if the altitude wasn't cruel enough, the Nuggets also take pleasure in playing a few psychological games on visitors.
Just before tip, Speller shouts this caution to the road team: “Warning, you are 5,280 feet above sea level.” Down at the Pepsi Center's loading docks, where the visiting teams' busses back in, a sign is strategically plastered where the players can't help but make eye contact. It says, ‘You are at 5,280 feet.'
By the time tipoff rolls around, the challenge of rising above the altitude is as much a mental one as a physical one.
“It's a problem. Trust me,” said Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin. “If we go on the road for four days it's a problem. So I can only imagine it for teams that (don't) play here.”
The Thunder pulled into town on Thursday in part to get acclimated to the altitude. Typically, the Thunder will practice in Oklahoma City the morning before the first game of a road trip and charter out in the afternoon to arrive in the road city on the evening before the game. But by leaving Thursday, the Thunder was able to get a full practice in Friday in addition to its scheduled shootaround Saturday morning.
“That was smart on their behalf for them to come here and get a practice in and get it in their lungs a little bit,” Martin said.
The slightest bit of physical exertion can affect you.
Cook runs steps before each game and reports a different level of exhaustion each time he does so in Denver. Imagine what a 48-minute game can do.
“A lot more short breaths need to be taken,” Cook advised.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks said the high altitude doesn't generally impact the way he coaches a game. But Brooks did say that if players need an early breather, he will make substitutions. Brooks put his players through a series of running drills and scrimmaging Friday to help fight off any fatigue Saturday.
“It's more psychological,” Brooks said.
The Nuggets went 33-8 at home during the regular season and will try make their environment even more challenging by using speedy point guards Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton together to push the tempo. It's a good thing their counterpart, Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook, is up for the task.
“This is my third year now. I'm kind of used to it,” Westbrook said. “I'm not really worried about altitude. We can play under water for all I care.”
Denver guard Arron Afflalo, however, has heard opponents openly complain about fatigue in the middle of games.
“A lot of guys talk about it on the court,” Afflalo said. “But at the same time, your brain will tell you how tired you are. So if they're intense, I don't think altitude will work to our advantage.”
Brooks remembered his days as an assistant coach under George Karl with the Nuggets from 2003-06. Karl, Brooks said, loved to play an uptempo game. The strategy wasn't aimed at attacking opponents' lungs, but if they couldn't keep up, even better.
“We always wanted to score points and play fast,” Brooks said. “George always talked about pace. One of his favorite words was ‘faster.' When you think you're fast, he'd say go faster than that.”
Now, Brooks is stressing to his team the importance of a solid pregame warm-up.
“Guys have to get a good sweat,” Brooks said. “And once the ball's up, you might think about it for the first three or four minutes. But after that, the crowd's going to be such an intense crowd that that might be more of a factor than the altitude.”
First, the Thunder has to make it past the first few minutes.
“Hopefully it helps us,” Afflalo said. “Anything can help.”