DENVER (AP) — The Oklahoma City Thunder are on the verge of winning their first playoff series since moving from Seattle in 2008 thanks to All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and their terrific supporting cast.
Following Eric Maynor's lead in the opener and James Harden's step-up performance in Game 2, Serge Ibaka was Denver's dagger Saturday night.
"That's what it's all about in this league," Durant said. "You can't win with just one or two guys."
Transforming from a shot-blocker into a shot-maker, Ibaka, the second-year pro from the Congo tied his career high with 22 points and pulled down a career-high 16 rebounds in sparking the Thunder's 97-94 win over the Nuggets that gave them a 3-0 lead in their best-of-7 playoff series.
No NBA team has ever bounced back from such a big deficit to avoid elimination.
"To beat this team four straight times in a playoff is not likely," Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo said. "But to beat them one time is, and we'll go from that point."
Game 4 is Monday night in Denver.
Ibaka, who led the league with 198 blocks during the regular season, gave the Thunder a third dimension on offense to go with Durant (26 points) and Westbrook (23), and his bucket with 10 seconds left helped the Thunder fend off Denver's furious rally in the final minute.
"The key was being aggressive and stay focus and try to do my job first, like defense," Ibaka said. "After that get confidence on offense."
"He was the difference maker," Thunder center Kendrick Perkins said. "He knocked down his shot when he needed to, he attacked the glass, he blocked shots, he changed the game. He was the best player on the court besides K.D. and Russell."
Not even the return of Afflalo (13 points) from a troublesome hamstring injury or bounce-back performances from J.R. Smith (15 points) and Chris "Birdman" Andersen (13) could keep the Nuggets from falling to 0-5 against Oklahoma City this month and inching closer to elimination.
Smith's contested 3-pointer just before the buzzer fell well short and Smith argued for a foul call on Harden, but the officials didn't blow their whistles.
Smith was hopping mad and stormed off the court after almost leading the Nuggets to an improbable rally in the final minute, when they trimmed a 10-point deficit to a single point.
"I thought it would have had a better chance of going in if I didn't get fouled," Smith said. "I guess they didn't call it because he's planted or whatever. If somebody hits your arm like that, I think you still have to call the foul."
Smith's 3-pointer with 14 seconds left made it 95-94, but Durant fed Ibaka for a fastbreak dunk at the 10-second mark. After a timeout, Smith was bottled up and fired an off-balance 29-footer with Harden all over him.
"J.R. had just hit two 3s in a row, we went small to switch everything," Harden said. "As soon as he caught the ball I tried to not give him any space where he could get an open shot."
Nene had 15 points and 10 boards for the Nuggets, who took a 73-71 lead into the fourth quarter before going cold — 29 percent from the floor, 20 percent from long range and 62 percent from the line — and watching Oklahoma City pull away behind Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka.
The Nuggets were trying to win a playoff game without Carmelo Anthony for the first time since May 19, 1994, against Utah, but they were done it by poor shooting and the play of Ibaka, who sank all 10 of his free throws.
Anthony was traded in February along with Chauncey Billups in the NBA's biggest blockbuster deal of the season, taking his talents to Broadway for a bevy of young players and draft picks.
The new Nuggets relied on teamwork and a healthy dose of pick-and-roll offense to go 18-7 after their big trade and secure coach George Karl's fourth straight 50-win season. But in these playoffs the Thunder have made them look much like the old Nuggets who served as first-round fodder for six of the seven seasons with 'Melo in the mix.
The Nuggets have sorely missed the sharp-shooting of Anthony and Billups from the free throw line. They misfired 15 of 45 free throws on this night, making them just 79 for 115 (69 percent) in the series.
"The free throw line I think is a little nightmarish right now," Karl said.
Afflalo played for the first time since April 11, when he aggravated a strained left hamstring that's cost him 13 games over the final month of the regular season. But just when he got back in the lineup, Danilo Gallinari came up limping with an Achilles' injury, managing just six points and two rebounds in 19 minutes.
Karl predicted Thursday that the Nuggets would even up the series at home, proclaiming: "It's going to be a great Easter weekend. We're going to win two games, and it's going to be a best-of-3 series."
Instead, the Nuggets find themselves squarely facing another of Karl's philosophies, one that holds a series doesn't truly begin until the road team wins.
So, consider this series officially started, and the Thunder has a chance to end it quickly.
"Nobody wants to lose, let alone be embarrassed. That's what they're doing to us right now, they're embarrassing us," Smith said. "They're up 3-0. We're in a real tough position. We have to fight back."