Nuggets from my notebook from Wednesday's loss to Denver.
- Again, I'll start with the biggest news of the night. James Harden has been cleared to play after passing all league-mandated protocol to return from a concussion. He'll be back for the opening round of the playoffs. He again did not join the team tonight at the arena for precautionary reasons due to bright lights and such.
Coach Scott Brooks said Harden will go through practice Friday and will not have a minute restriction upon his return. "I'm excited," Brooks said. "I'm thankful that James is healthy. That's the bottom line. I'm worried about James, and he's back."
We don't know yet when the Thunder will play its first game. It'll either be Saturday or Sunday. We'll find out late, late Thursday night.
We do have a pretty good idea who the Thunder's first round opponent will be. Are you ready for a Western Conference Finals rematch? Because it's looking like Dallas will be the No. 7 seed. All Denver has to do is win at Minnesota on Thursday night, or get a Dallas loss.
That's what has got to make this loss sting a tad bit. The Thunder had a chance to sort of control its destiny with its first-round matchup but couldn't seal the deal. A win over Denver would have increased the chances that the Thunder avoided the defending champions. Instead, it now appears that the Thunder will draw its least favorable matchup. And that marks the latest time the this team has displayed a disturbing trend. Every time the Thunder has a chance to control its destiny by winning, it seems the team doesn't do it.
Despite saying for weeks that matchups didn't matter, it certainly looked like Brooks was playing for a win tonight, probably to keep Denver down and help Dallas move up. When Brooks brought back KD and Russell Westbrook inside the nine-minute mark, it certainly looked fishy just one night after allowing the bench unit to close out the game against Sacramento. Four starters played at least eight minutes in the fourth quarter tonight. But Brooks said he wasn't trying to impact the standings. "I’m not one to manipulate who we play and who we don’t play," Brooks said. "You play who you play. If you’re going to win a championship, you’ve got to go through four very, very good teams. And you’re going to have to play them all. The strategy was I wanted Kevin and Russell (Westbrook) to get in the mid-30s (minutes). I probably played Kevin maybe two or three minutes longer than I wanted. But the game was close and he wanted to stay in."
There was more injury news tonight in addition to Harden. Westbrook looked to have hurt his left wrist pretty badly late in the fourth quarter after landing on it awkwardly following an attempted blocked shot against Corey Brewer. Westbrook was holding his wrist and wincing as if he was in severe pain. But just like the warrior he's proven to be, Westbrook stayed in the game and played through it. After the game, Westbrook said his wrist was "a little sore" but it's all right. He said he doesn't anticipate it affecting him going forward.
Serge Ibaka also sent a scare through the entire arena with just less than five minutes remaining in the third when he collapsed to the floor after Andre Miller appeared to elbow him in the back. Ibaka remained on the floor while play continued at the other end before getting up and checking out of the game. He was said to have a hip contusion and later returned. Like Westbrook, Ibaka didn't just come back, but he came back and played well. Ibaka had a filthy stuff on a dunk Brewer dunk attempt, meeting him at the rim and rejecting a potentially powerful tomahawk.
Ibaka finished with four blocks tonight, giving him 241 for the season, good enough to give him a league-leading 3.65 average. It's the first time Ibaka has lead the league in both total blocks and blocks per game. Last year, he just led the league in total blocks.
Kevin Durant said before the game that Ibaka's shot-blocking makes him Defensive Player of the Year material. "I think he is," Durant said. "If you look at the guys that block shots, Dwight Howard, he got Defensive Player of the Year for blocking shots three years in a row. But some of that stuff is sometimes reputation and name. It's sad to say those awards and stuff is like that but, hopefully, I think he deserves it. How many shots he's blocked and double-digit shot blocks he had in the season and how he changes every shot for us. If people really watch our games they'll really know how much of a defensive force he is. But like I said, that stuff goes down to popular names or stuff like that. But I hope he's (among) the top two voted."
KD scored a game-high 32 tonight to bump his scoring average to 28.03. Lakers guard Kobe Bryant is averaging 27.86 points and now needs 38 in L.A.'s season finale at Sacramento on Thursday to take home the 2011-12 scoring title. "I probably won't watch," Durant said. You don't really believe that do you?
Lakers coach Mike Brown plans on sitting his stars in the finale -- with the possible exception of Kobe.
I loved the way Durant started the game making some great passes out of drives to the basket. He easily could have forced shots in search of more separation in the scoring race. But he wisely made the right play. He got Westbrook a wide open 3, Derek Fisher a wide open 3 and created three more open jumpers early on but watched Daequan Cook and Fish miss them.
Didn't love the way the Thunder played defense tonight. One night after allowing the Kings to score a season-high 40 first-quarter points, OKC gave up a 42-point, first-quarter pace to Denver midway through the opening quarter. The Nuggets ended up with 36 points in the first period.
At halftime, the Nuggets lead the Thunder 64-58. Denver's 64 points were one shy of tying OKC's opponent high for a half this year.
The Nuggets missed 12 of 30 free throws, made just 8-of-23 3-pointers and got just 14 points on 3-of-13 shooting from Danilo Gallinari and still won. Because 18 Thunder turnovers (which led to 24 Denver points) and 17 Nuggets offensive rebounds (which led to 21 second-chance points) will lead to that.
KD's dunk on JaVale McGee was good, not great. We've seen much better. What made it as impressive as it was is that KD dunked with two hands. But the bucket came on a generous continuation well after the whistle. It was almost one of those "The whistle was blown and the play is dead but I'm going to stop you from shooting anyway" plays. Only this one counted.
There's four criteria for evaluating how good a dunk really is, with the nastiness of the dunk increasing at each level. 1) you raise your eyebrows, 2) you scrunch up your face like you smelled some spoiled milk, 3) you lean back in your seat, spread your eyelids as wide as possible and cover put a closed fist to your mouth while you bellow "Ohhhhh $***" and 4) you jump out of your seat and briefly forget where you are. Those are the levels. I'd say KD's dunk was Level 1.
Speaking of McGee. He inexplicably tossed his headband into the crowd -- as he checked in for the first time! Something is truly wrong with that cat.
Brooks addressed Westbrook's April slump before the game and chalked up much of his 38 percent shooting entering tonight's game to missed layups. "Normally he has an amazing ability to finish with either hand and get to the rim within seconds and get above the rim," Brooks said. "He hasn't made the layups as he did in March. And when you don't make your layups, you kind of put more pressure on yourself to make the mid-range shot and then the 3-point shot."
Westbrook then went out and air-balled a layup.
Give credit to Westbrook for persevering and closing the season with a terrific effort. He scored 30 points on 10-of-20 shooting to go with nine assists, six rebounds, four blocked shots and three steals. He also got to the line 10 times and made nine of them. "I just tried to come out with some energy," Westbrook said. "We started off slow. I just tried to pick my teammates up."
Westbrook admitted he needed a big game like this going into the playoffs. "Definitely," Westbrook said. "I definitely needed that. It's a new season now, so I definitely needed a game like that. But unfortunately, we weren't able to come out with the win."
Cook has got to return as a fixture in the rotation in the playoffs doesn't he?
The Thunder finishes 47-19, which is a .712 winning percentage that translates to 58 wins in an 82-game season. So, technically, you can say the Thunder has improved its record in each of its first four seasons.
Brooks: "I’m proud of what they’ve done this year. They’ve made some improvements in areas that we wanted to get better at…so there’s a lot of good things that we’ve done this year.”
The Thunder didn't close out the season well. That's one thing it didn't do. OKC went 8-7 in April and had just one win against a playoff team. And that one, against the Bulls on April 1, came without Derrick Rose in the lineup.
The Thunder was 32-9 at one point. OKC then went 15-10 down the stretch.
But Westbrook and Durant both assured everyone that this team has another gear. "I think we’re playing OK," Westbrook said. "I think we could be playing better. But I think we got another level in us and hopefully that comes out." I asked Westbrook what makes him confident it will. "I’ve seen it before," he said. "I’ve seen us turn it up a notch. Everybody’s seen us turn it up. We started the year off on that level, and we definitely can hit that level again."
Said Durant: "I don't think we've reached our ceiling by any means. I think everybody's going to come out and get better. Our defense is going to be a lot better to start the games. I think we're moving the ball better. Everybody in this locker room comes to work every day. We challenge each other and that's going to help us out."
I know 29 teams outside of Denver that would love to have Kenneth Faried.
Chris "Birdman" Andersen appears to be making a push to challenge Harden for the league's funkiest beard.
Very cool moment between the first and second quarter when the Thunder honored the Oklahoma State women's basketball team.
The Thunder unveiled its second banner in the rafters just before tip-off, obviously honoring the team as the 2011-12 Northwest Division champion. It's pretty cool to see history being made, in this case one banner at a time.
NBA commissioner David Stern discussed Metta World Peace at length today on a national conference call.
Fisher versus Miller was entertaining at times tonight only because it was 37-year-old versus 36-year-old. Are there any older point guards in the league than those two? Fish caught Miller with a mean behind-the-back dribble move in the first half before knocking down a jumper over McGee. Sick, sick move that I'm sure nobody expected to see out of Fish.
Quietly, Fish turned it around from 3-point range just before the playoffs. He made 8-of-18 (44.4 percent) from downtown in his last 11 games and looks as confident as he's been all year in his shot. That's got to be a good sign going into the opening weekend of the playoffs.
More good news for Fish.
Halftime act Fletcher Runyan, a tightrope walking dude, did the splits on the rope. It was totally unintentional. OUCH!
Up next. Playoffs baby! Win or go home!