With 3:28 left in the third quarter of Game 3 on Saturday night, point guard Russell Westbrook was whistled for a foul on an apparent steal that would have given OKC a breakaway layup and a 72-62 lead.
Westbrook argued the call and was slapped with a technical foul. Denver made the free throw and narrowed the deficit to 70-63. A dormant crowd suddenly awakened and roared even louder when Nuggets coach George Karl tactically inserted crowd favorite J.R. Smith into the game.
Smith would hit a game-tying 3-pointer roughly 2½ minutes later and the Nuggets closed out the quarter with an 11-1 run to take a 73-71 lead.
The Thunder regained its composure early in the fourth quarter, opening with a 15-5 spurt to take an 86-78 lead with 3:40 left and went on to post a 97-94 victory inside the Pepsi Center.
- The Thunder fouled with 1.0 second left at the end of the second quarter and 1.0 second left at the end of the third quarter. The Nuggets helped OKC out by missing four of five free throws.
- The crowd's frustration can be summed up with the Thunder leading 88-80 with 2½ minutes remaining. A frustrated Denver fan screamed of OKC, "They can do nothing wrong. Unreal. Unreal. … Punch 'em in the face."
- The Nuggets made 3 of 5 3-pointers in the first quarter and Smith hit back-to-back corner 3s to pull Denver within 95-94 with 14.6 seconds left, but Denver shot just 1 for 16 on all other attempts beyond the arc.
- During pregame 2½ hours before tip, rookie center Cole Aldrich and guard Nate Robinson partnered to beat center Byron Mullens and guard Royal Ivey in an intense best-of-seven series of 2-on-2. Aldrich and Robinson won 4 games to 3. Robinson was never quiet.
- The league's two highest free-throw shooting teams combined to shoot 88 free throws, but both struggled to convert at key moments. OKC shot 76.7 percent and Denver shot 66.7 percent.
NUGGETS FANS WAVE "TONY TOWELS"
Chesapeake Energy sponsored blue T-shirts on every seat during the first two games of the opening-round playoff series at Oklahoma City Arena.
For Game 3 in Denver on Saturday night, baby blue-colored towels were left on every seat inside the Pepsi Center.
Ironically, the towels were sponsored by "Anthony's Pizza & Pasta." The establishment is not owned by former Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony, who was traded away Feb. 22 and a source of aggravation for the franchise throughout the flirting process.
"There's an energy that's going to be on our side," Denver coach George Karl said, "but there's also an energy that's going to motivate the true competitor, and I think Oklahoma City has some guys who are going to enjoy playing in the moment. For us, hopefully it'll make us play with a little more confidence, a little more momentum. Instead of having five minutes of good basketball, can we make it eight or nine minutes?"
Thunder coach Scott Brooks stressed the importance of his team getting off to a good start on the road.
"It's one of the best crowds," Brooks said. "When I was here (as an assistant coach during) the playoffs, they were as loud as any building in the league … It's important to have a good start. But if you don't, you still have plenty of time to get back into it. We showed that in Game 1 when we were down 13."
In four regular-season games against Denver this season, Westbrook averaged just 2.3 turnovers. In the first two games of this playoff series, however, he averaged 6.0 per game.
"If we get him in the five-to-six area, that takes him out of the game a little bit," said Karl, who pointed out Westbrook averaged more turnovers on the road (4.0) this season than at home (3.7).
Brooks said: "We definitely don't want the turnovers, but Russell is an aggressive player and we know he makes great plays for us. At times he's going to turn the ball over. Six or seven is too many. If he keeps it in the three range, we can all live with that."
However, Westbrook was also 6 for 10 from 3-point range (.600) in the first two games. "That wasn't expected. That was new," Karl said. "He's shooting the ball with a great deal of confidence."
Westbrook shot 33.0 percent from 3-point range in the regular season.
On Friday, Karl said the series was "a jump shot or a (referee's) call" away from being 1-1, referring to the 107-103 loss in Game 1, which included a missed offensive goaltending call against the Thunder with 1:05 left in the game that put OKC ahead for good.
Karl said that for a majority of the first two games, he has been pleased with his team's play.
"They (the Thunder) know that for about 80-percent of the minutes, we've played pretty good basketball," Karl said. "We've got about a 15-minute stretch where we were shocked and got stage-froze by the situation, by the energy."
The Thunder outrebounded the Nuggets by an average of 13 boards in the first two games, including a 54-31 advantage on Wednesday.
"Usually when you lose rebounding as bad as we did in Game 2 you blame your bigs, but it was a team effort," Karl said. "Our perimeter guys didn't get back in on the boards. Our little guys when they had an opportunity to fight and battle, I think they got outcompeted as well as our big guys did.
"One of their underrated traits is their ability to rebound the ball. We put all their close games on film. OK, (Kevin) Durant's made some shots, Westbrook's made some shots. But they've won more close games with offensive rebounding than any team I think I've scouted."
GAME 5/GAME 6
Starting times for Game 5 and Game 6 have been set (if necessary).
Game 5 in OKC will start at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
Game 6 in Denver will start at 9:30 p.m. Oklahoma time on Friday. The only way it would start at 8 p.m. Oklahoma time was if series between Miami-Philadelphia, Boston-New York and San Antonio-Memphis were all over.
SPREADING THE WEALTH
An early trend for the Thunder in the series has been finding contributions from different sources and center Kendrick Perkins said it will continue to be important.
"Every guy on this team is key," Perkins said. "It's going to be a different guy each game who's going to win a game for us. The first game it was Eric Maynor who came off the bench. (In Game 2), it was Nick Collison and James (Harden) who came off the bench."
Asked one thing that is inexcusable from his team, Brooks did not hesitate.
"Lack of effort," he said. "That's always been. Age has nothing to do with effort. From Day One we've always focused on that. We've never used age as an excuse. You have to play hard and play with great effort.
"The experience, I understand it always helps. But if you have an experienced team that doesn't work hard experience is not going to help you at all. I'd rather have the group of guys that we have that is committed to working hard and getting better."
Nuggets power forward Kenyon Martin, when seeing the sizable horde of media covering Game 3: "What is this, the (bleeping NBA) Finals?"
By John Rohde and Darnell Mayberry