Here was the first question posed to George Karl during his pre-game media session.
“Coach, what kind of a test do you expect tonight from the Oklahoma City Thunder?”
The Denver Nuggets coach laughed, as if deep down he thought the inquiry was as silly as it sounded. As if the Thunder's threats weren't obvious.
Karl answered anyway, politely going into how great the Thunder's offense is and how its defense has a way of making teams make mistakes.
“They're a team that has a championship determination,” Karl said. “Right now, they're playing on a mission.”
Karl and his Nuggets just happened to be the team standing in the way Wednesday night.
The Thunder dominated Denver, 117-97, leading from start to finish inside Chesapeake Energy Arena before bumping its league-best record to 31-8. Oklahoma City led by as many as 28 points and never allowed the Nuggets to pull closer than 15 after halftime.
It quite possibly was the most complete victory of the season from the Thunder. There have been bigger blowouts (a 45-point thrashing of Charlotte) and more attractive affairs (a thrilling road win over Brooklyn). But rarely has OKC handled business in the manner it did Wednesday against a playoff-bound team playing almost entirely at full strength.
“It was a solid game throughout the game by all of our guys,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks.
Oklahoma City set the tone with its defense on Denver's first two possessions. Both ended in Nuggets turnovers. The next three trips for Denver ended in long, contested jump shots. That's all that was available to the Nuggets when the Thunder clogged the paint and shut off passing lanes. It was a critical part of the game plan against a team that entered the game leading the league in paint points at 56.2 per game.
“The ball pressure was good, and the activity on the ball, we had a lot of hands around the basketball,” Brooks said. “We were using length. They didn't see a lot of openings early on and I think when you do that it gives the appearance that it's not going to be an easy night to score on us.”
The Thunder registered 11 steals and 11 blocked shots. OKC forced Denver into 21 turnovers, leading to 28 points and limited the Nuggets to 2-for-15 shooting from 3-point range.
“We didn't have a good offensive game, we didn't have a good defensive game and we didn't have a good energy game,” Karl said. “They seemed to be the hungrier team from the very beginning. Their studs got into the game at a high level very early and scored a lot of points.
Russell Westbrook was so magnificent in the early moments that his 16 points were just two shy of the entire Nuggets outfit to that point. Westbrook made six of eight shots from the field in the opening period and all four of his foul shots. Kevin Durant added eight points on 3-for-4 shooting in the frame. The All-Star duo combined for 24 of the Thunder's first 26 points.
“We knew these guys were coming off a back-to-back, playing overtime,” Durant said. “So we just wanted to get into them and make them make quick decisions with the ball.”
Since that shocking loss at Washington, the Thunder has now won five straight and seemingly regained the championship focus Karl spoke of. Over the past five games, the Thunder has won by an average margin of 14.6 points. Four of the victories were by at least 12. The closest contest was a four-point win at Portland.
“We're just trying to play up to our level,” Durant said. “We have a level that we want to reach every single game … And guys are buying in. If you have a team full of guys that buy in then anything can happen.”