DENVER – Denver Nuggets coach George Karl said a few weeks ago he wanted to match up with the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
On the brink of being swept by Oklahoma City in the first round, his feelings are understandable.
Denver's 97-94 loss on Saturday night put the Nuggets a game from losing in the first round for the seventh time in eight years. Injuries, player meltdowns and Karl's battle with throat and neck cancer have been factors in previous early exits.
This time, Denver might just be dealing with a bad matchup.
"There's a big part of me that's disappointed because of our failures," Karl said Sunday. "But I also know that sometimes some of the best teams lose in the first round because of matchups and circumstances. Oklahoma City does a good job against some of our strengths. We like the rim, and they have four defenders that like to protect the rim, and do it pretty well."
The Thunder's defense has frustrated the Nuggets late in games, and Denver has struggled to find a go-to player in crunch time.
On Saturday, J.R. Smith nearly brought his team back from 10 points down in the final 50 seconds when he hit two 3-pointers, but he air-balled a 29-footer in the final seconds that could have sent the game into overtime.
Now the Nuggets are trying to avoid being swept for the second time in four seasons.
"When you're on the verge of getting swept it's always embarrassing," Smith said. "You never want to get swept let alone lose six out of eight to this team in the season. It's not a good feeling."
The Thunder have beaten the Nuggets five times in the past 18 days. Three of those games have been close, including Games 1 and 3 of this series. Denver has hurt itself with poor execution down the stretch and missed free throws.
The Nuggets were 30 for 45 from the free throw line on Saturday and they're shooting 68.7 percent from there in the series.
The Nuggets feel their little mistakes have made this series appear less competitive.
"They're good. They're a good basketball team, but do you reverse it and say we're the best team if we make five more free throws and we win the game?" Arron Afflalo said. "Now we're up 3-0."
The Thunder are trying to maintain a balance while trying to win their first series since moving to Oklahoma City from Seattle three years ago. They have the youngest roster in the league and only three Oklahoma City players have advanced past the first round — Kendrick Perkins, Nate Robinson and Nazr Mohammed.
They don't feel their inexperience will be an issue Monday.
"The closeout game is all mental," said Perkins, who won an NBA title with Boston in 2008. "It's going to have to be a mental game for us, mental toughness. It's not going to be easy, we're going to have to stick together and play possession by possession and make sure we make the extra effort."
Denver is trying to do what no other NBA team has done — win a series after going down 3-0. The first step is getting back in the series, and Karl can draw on his experience when he coached the SuperSonics in the 1996 NBA finals.
"We were 3-0 against a team called the Chicago Bulls, and they had a rehearsal on our court on handing out the trophy," he said. "They had a stage they were going to bring on the court. They had people with scripts on who was going to do what and who was going to be where. We proceeded to win Game 4 and 5."
Karl shared the anecdote with his team Sunday in the hope of giving his players something grab onto, but the biggest motivator for the Nuggets is pride.
"I've been part of that on a bigger stage team celebrating on your home court," forward Kenyon Martin said. "It's not a good feeling by any stretch of the imagination. So we need win — bottom line. There's no other way to put it."
If they don't win, Denver will again make another early exit from the playoffs. Two years ago, the Nuggets reached the Western Conference finals before losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games, but that's the only time in the past eight years they advanced past the first round.
Despite recent history, Karl's not ready to concede anything.
"We still think the process of learning and winning in the playoffs is still going on," he said.