DENVER — The biggest test in the Oklahoma City Thunder's history is on deck Monday night.
When the Thunder walks into the Pepsi Center for Game 4 against Denver, it will do so seeking a win and a clean sweep in this best-of-7 series.
A win might eventually come. But let's beware of one thing before we break out the brooms.
This is a closeout game. And in the NBA, closeout games are notoriously known to be the most difficult of any game in a playoff series.
“It's always the toughest game,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “You don't want to go home. You want to keep extended the series because you never know what can happen if another game goes by.”
Denver is desperate. And desperate teams are dangerous.
“Denver's going to come in with a lot of pride,” warned Thunder center Kendrick Perkins. “No team wants to get beat 4-0.”
Here's what makes tonight's game iffy. The Thunder, for the most part, has no clue about closeout games. This young bunch, by and large, has never been here.
The Thunder's 15-man roster has played in a combined 46 closeout games in which their teams had a chance to move on. Kendrick Perkins accounts for 20 of those games. Nazr Mohammed (13) and Nate Robinson (eight) combine to account for 21 others. Royal Ivey has appeared in two, and Nick Collison, Daequan Cook, and Thabo Sefolosha each have one experience of a closeout game in which their teams had a chance to move on.
Perkins is 9-11 in closeout opportunities in which his team has had a chance to win. Mohammed is 8-5. In this league, those are more than respectable records.
That illustrates how tough these games are.
“A closeout game, I think, is all mental,” Perkins said. “It's going to have to be a mental game for us; mental toughness. It's not going to be easy. We're just going to have to stick together and play position by position and make sure we make the extra effort.”
The Thunder's combined closeout games have been decided by 11.8 points, a figure that doesn't illustrate how close closeout contest are. Perkins' former Boston Celtics bullied opponents in six of those closeout games by 27, 34, 40, 19, 21 and 22 points, respectively.
You also can't overlook the fact that the Thunder is playing in Denver. Perkins' former coach, Doc Rivers, was 1-11 in closeout games on the road before the Celtics put the finishing touches on a sweep of the Knicks in New York on Sunday. Nuggets fans are expected to be twice as loud and animated as they were Saturday night in Game 3, and a building in which Denver went 33-8 during the regular season could seemingly feel impossible to do anything right in tonight.
“They're going to give everything they have,” Collison said. “I'm sure the building will support them in that. So it will be extremely difficult.”
The Thunder will attempt to stay focused on the little things tonight, as it has all season. It sounds simple, but ball movement on offense and making Nuggets players take shots with hands in their faces and against set defenses is what OKC thinks will pave the way to a win.
“If we try to focus on that or a bigger story than just playing basketball, I think it'll hurt us,” Collison said. “So we want to just focus on the things that have given us success.”
Perkins, more than any other Thunder player, knows the importance of urgency. He's seen closeout games get away, and he understands how critical it is to close out Denver as quickly as possible.
“When you have a team down, you just have to apply the pressure and keep your foot on their throat,” Perkins said. “So you got to come out with the mindset that you're going to come out and not give them any hope.”