DENVER — If one image could tell the story of Tuesday night’s clash between the Thunder and Nuggets it came with 22 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Both teams big men, Kendrick Perkins and Nene, stood in a forehead-to-forehead stare down. The two had just gotten tangled up underneath the basket. Bumping occurred. Pushing ensued. Words were exchanged. With that, the stage became set for what is now all but guaranteed to be the 4-5 matchup in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. And with the Thunder’s 101-94 win inside the Pepsi Center, Oklahoma City is now all but assured to maintain the fourth seed, the Northwest Division title and home-court advantage in the opening series. The win increased the Thunder’s lead on the Nuggets to four games with each team having just five games remaining. A rematch is scheduled for Friday inside Oklahoma City Arena. But just one more Thunder win or one more Nuggets loss will wrap up the division, the fourth spot and home court advantage. Afterward, hardly a soul dared to step away from the company line inside the Thunder’s locker room, where the message suggested the team hadn’t accomplished anything special. “It was a big win for us after losing two in a row,” said Thunder forward Kevin Durant, who scored a game-high 32 points. “I think we’re putting more emphasis on (bouncing back) from losing two in a row than trying to clinch the division.” But go back to Perkins’ stare down, and the Thunder’s commanding 13-point first-half lead, and you’ll find a different story. Fully aware of what was at stake, Oklahoma City jumped on Denver from the start, holding the high-powered Nuggets to 16 first-quarter points. From the start, the Nuggets clearly struggled with the Thunder’s length on the perimeter and in the paint, finding it difficult to get off shots without a hand in their face. “They showed they wanted to make a statement if and when we see them in the playoffs,” Nuggets coach George Karl. The Thunder won for the first time in Denver since the team relocated to Oklahoma City. The franchise’s last win at Denver was in March 2007, a streak of seven straight defeats. The win also snapped the Nuggets’ 10-game home winning streak. The last nine Nuggets home wins have come since Carmelo Anthony was traded to New York. Tuesday’s win certainly could build confidence as the Thunder goes into a potential playoff series with Denver. The franchise’s last seven losses at Denver have come by an average margin of 19.2 points. “The way I look at, we lost to them in the first game here by five and we played a good game. Carmelo was on fire,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “Who cares what we did two year ago, three years ago and in Seattle? We’re focused on what we’re doing now.” The Thunder assembled a fairly complete and controlling game against Denver, possibly even coming out with an early advantage on the impeding playoff chess match. Despite Denver sending five defenders at Durant in the first quarter, the Thunder’s two-time All-Star still scored 12 points on 6-for-9 shooting in the opening period. The Thunder’s lead stood at 11 after one quarter. Though Durant made just 4-of-12 shots the rest of the way, it was clear Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari , Al Harrington, Nene and Kenyon Martin combined won’t have the same impact on Durant as L.A. Lakers forward Ron Artest did in last year’s postseason. Meanwhile, the Thunder’s continually improving defense made life miserable for Denver with sharp close-outs, rotations and help at the rim. More significantly, however, the Thunder made a commitment to transition defense and held the run-and-gun happy Nuggets to just eight fast break points. “That was the No. 1 most important thing for us to win tonight was limiting them in transition,” said Thunder forward Nick Collison. “That’s how they generate so much offense. It’s something that’s not easy to do. We’ll play them again in a couple of days and we’ll have to try to do it again.” The Thunder might never find an answer for Nuggets guard Ty Lawson, the 5-foot-11 speedster who scored a team-high 28 points by knifing into the paint at will. Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor couldn’t stay in front of Lawson, and there might not be a player alive who can. “We changed it up a few times, but he is quick and crafty,” Brooks said. Westbrook struggled on both ends in his first crack at the new-look Nuggets. He scored 18 points but made just five of 17 shots. Maynor provided a steadier hand, coming off the bench late in the third quarter to turn a three-point deficit into an 11-point lead with 4:44 left to play. Maynor had seven points and three assists during the rally. “Eric Maynor came in and did a fantastic job in that stretch of about eight minutes,” Brooks said. “I thought he really settled us down and made great decisions and was creating a lot of problems in the paint.” The Thunder moved to 51-26, one win better than last year, but refused to show any signs of satisfaction for being on the cusp of a division title and home court advantage. “Almost is not good until you get it,” Brooks said.
Clippers at Thunder When: 7 p.m. Wednesday Where: Oklahoma City Arena TV: FS Oklahoma (Cox 37, HD Ch. 722) Radio: WWLS 98.1-FM, WWLS 640-AM THREE THINGS TO KNOW - Clippers lead the season series 2-1 after coming back from 16 points down for a 98-92 victory last Saturday night inside Staples Center. - Thunder won 111-88 in OKC on Feb. 22, which would be last home game for Jeff Green, Nenad Krstic, D.J. White and Morris Peterson. - Former OU standout Blake Griffin led Clippers in points (28), rebounds (11) and assists (eight) during first pro appearance in home state.