Thunder push Denver to brink of eliminationApr 24, 2011 - 6:00 AM
J.R. Smith hit back-to-back three-pointers in the final 23.3 seconds to pull the Nuggets within a point after they were down 10, but he airballed another long try at the buzzer with James Harden guarding him close.
The Nuggets were hoping a change of scenery to their home court would sway momentum in their favor. Instead, they will be faced with an historically daunting task beginning with Monday's Game 4 in Denver.
No team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win an NBA playoff series, and few have even been able to force a Game 7.
Serge Ibaka had 22 points and 16 rebounds for the Thunder, who nearly squandered their 10-point lead in the final minute after a Denver surge that was sparked by Smith.
He scored 15 points in under 15 minutes off the bench, none bigger than his two late 3s. The second one came after he inbounded the ball, rushed to the left corner and buried a shot over Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha to get the Nuggets within 95-94 with 14.6 seconds left.
The Thunder responded with a quick basket -- Durant threw downcourt for a wide-open Ibaka, who dunked for a 97-94 lead -- and then held on at the other end as Denver looked again to its hot hand.
Smith got the ball near the top of the arc and wiggled for room against Harden, who stood with his arms in the air and surrendered no ground. Smith's shot barely made it halfway to the basket as time ran out.
"I thought our guys did a good job of switching," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said of the final play. "James made him take a very difficult shot."
He was an unlikely target as Denver's go-to shooter after being benched by head coach George Karl in Game 2. Smith was unhappy to play just six minutes and even hinted there was a "strong possibility" he would leave the Nuggets as a free agent.
Arron Afflalo, who missed the first two games of the series with a left hamstring injury, scored 13 points and talked about squandered opportunities.
"The mental focus, I can't put enough emphasis on that from the makeup of our team," Afflalo said. "Every time we miss a free throw, every time we turn the ball over, every time we don't take advantage of a break opportunity we should capitalize on, those are the things that catch up with you."
Kenyon Martin and Nene matched Smith with 15 points apiece for Denver, while Nene pulled down 10 rebounds. Chris Anderson -- also benched by Karl in Game 2 -- scored 13 points in under 17 minutes.
Denver led 73-71 after three quarters and neither team scored in the first 2:19 of the fourth until Anderson's free throw made it 74-71. Oklahoma City took the lead for good with about eight minutes left and slowly built a cushion.
Westbrook, who scored 13 in the fourth, hit a long jumper to make it 88-80 with 3:13 remaining. Durant was playing with five fouls, but was still enough of a presence that Raymond Felton missed a fast-break layup with the NBA's leading scorer on his tail.
Soon after, Durant made a pair of free throws for the Thunder's 10-point lead -- 94-84 with 49.3 seconds left. Denver ended the game on a 10-3 run, but couldn't get the final points it needed.
The Nuggets held a 31-26 lead after the first quarter, but the Thunder ripped off a 30-18 second quarter to carry a 56-49 lead into halftime.
Oklahoma City is seeded fourth in the Western Conference playoffs, while Denver is the No. 5 seed...The Nuggets finished in second place, five games behind Oklahoma City in the Northwest Division, during the regular season.
- OKLAHOMA CITY: 97
Apr 24 1:04 AM
- OKLAHOMA CITY: 71
End of 3rd
Apr 24 12:16 AM
- OKLAHOMA CITY: 56
Apr 23 11:45 PM
- OKLAHOMA CITY: 26
End of 1st
Apr 23 10:46 PM
- OKLAHOMA CITY: 0
1st Quarter - 12:00
Apr 23 10:16 PM
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