“And we have to win this game to get to those two games,” Karl said before tipoff.
Mission accomplished as Denver posted a 112-107 victory over the Thunder before an estimated crowd of 14,000 inside the Pepsi Center that braved a brief, but powerful, snowstorm to witness the contest.
The Thunder and Nuggets play twice in a four-day span late in the season — at Denver on April 5 and in OKC on April 8 — and Karl is hoping those games will still matter for his team.
“I'm very optimistic that we can get to that point,” Karl said. “Those two games could mean who wins the division.”
Thunder coach Scott Brooks served as an assistant under Karl for three seasons in Denver. While Brooks sticks with his one-game-at-a-time approach to the season, his mentor freely admits he has gazed into the future and thinks the division title might go through Oklahoma City.
The Thunder (27-15) remains tied with Utah atop the Northwest Division standings, while the Nuggets (24-17) now trail by 2½ games.
“They're the team that probably is going to be in competition for the division,” Karl said. “They've been doing a good job of figuring it out while being young.”
The Thunder still has some things to figure out defensively, however. OKC lost its second straight contest thanks to the ill-time combination of not being able to make key stops or hit key shots at key moments.
The Thunder shot 54 percent through the first three quarters and just 30 percent in the fourth against the Nuggets.
“We didn't do much defensively to prevent them from scoring, which is disappointing,” Brooks said afterward.
Though Russell Westbrook didn't convert his first field goal until 3:31 remained in the half, he still finished with 28 points and 10 assists. Westbrook went 4 for 4 from the field and 6 for 6 from the line in a 14-point third quarter.
“Russell gave us some offense when we needed it,” Brooks said. “We didn't have a lot going, and Russell has the ability to attack the rim and get to the basket and make shot. He kept us in the game.”
Kevin Durant had 22 points, but shot just 6 for 18 from the field, including 1 for 9 in the second half. He is a combined 14 for 42 (.333) during the two-game losing streak.
“It's unfortunate,” Brooks said of Durant's shooting. “He's a shot-maker. It wasn't his night, but the one thing I love about KD he accepts that and takes full responsibility that he didn't make shots and comes back the next night with great energy.”
Denver is no slouch at home, with or without a baby blizzard, and upped its mark to 19-4, the second-best home record in the Western Conference behind San Antonio (23-2).
The Thunder was done in by a 35-point explosion from Carmelo Anthony, who might have been the happiest man in the building after learning earlier in the day the New Jersey Nets had decided to “walk away” from any potential trades with the superstar.
“He's a terrific player one-on-one and we had no answers for him,” Brooks said.
The Nuggets have now won four of their last five.
“We got beat by a good team,” Brooks said. “The Nuggets are healthy now and they're playing good basketball. It was a game that could have been anybody's game. They made a few more stops than we did and I thought that won the game.”