After a fun week of back-and-forth wondering about the three-seed and a brief flirtation with the two-seed, the Thunder locked themselves in to the four-spot Wednesday night and will play the Denver Nuggets in the opening round.
We all kind of saw this matchup coming two weeks ago, but now it’s for real. And the interesting thing is, we got two pretty good previews of this series in those last two weeks. Oklahoma City won both meetings with one coming in Denver and the other in OKC.
Obviously much more to come about this matchup, but here are five things we learned from those last two games:
There will be blood. Shots have already been fired by the Nuggets with the claims of cockiness and trash talking by the Thunder. Don’t think for a second the Thunder hasn’t notice. Kevin Durant may have sounded shocked about it last night, but the Thunder already knows about it. The Thunder already has made note of it.
Then of course there’s Perk and Nene who will bump and battle a lot over the next week. It wouldn’t shock me if there were double-technicals between the two every game. Those two already have bumped headed (literally) and over a seven-game series of pushing and shoving, someone is losing their cool. It’s one of Perk’s best assets, the way he gets under people’s skin. He will certainly do that with Nene.
Oh, and don’t forget, the Nuggets have Kenyon Martin, who is far from a friendly dude. I have one rule in life and that’s if a guy has a neck tattoo, you stay the heck away. And Martin has like 50. (The whole Nuggets roster could probably cover a football field with all their neck tattoos.) Martin is Denver’s enforcer in the same way Perk is for OKC. Some fireworks will be going off in this series for sure.
OKC wants to control tempo. That was obvious from the first two meetings. And really, it’s one of the very few games I noticed the Thunder trying to do such a thing. In most cases, OKC is completely content with just playing the other team’s game. Against the Nuggets — a team ranked second in pace — the Thunder really tried to slow them down. It didn’t work all that well in the first meeting in Denver (pace was 99.0) but OKC succeeded in the last game (90 possessions).
The Thunder was very conscious about Denver running as evidenced by assistant Brian Keefe standing and yelling at his team to “GET BACK!” after every shot. Ty Lawson is electric in the open floor and the Nuggets have horses that can run. The Thunder have athletes too of course, but I think OKC wants to slow the game down a bit and limit the Nuggets’ attempts. A grind-it-out type of game favors OKC.
OKC can defend Denver. Perk is the linchpin. With him inside on Nene, the Thunder doesn’t have to double or even dig down. That leaves Thabo, KD and Russell Westbrook to hang on their men. Because that’s what Denver wants. The Nuggets want your defense moving and out of position so one of their shooters can get a clean look. OKC didn’t allow that in those two games. Denver went just 10-30 from 3. And more importantly, the Nuggets were held out of the paint and forced to a lot of long 2s (22 in the first game).
The Nuggets need a hot hand. That’s what they’re after. They need Danilo Gallinari, Al Harrington, Lawson, J.R. Smith, Arron Afflalo or Wilson Chandler to get going. If one has it going to pair with Nene inside, they’re pretty good. Two, they’re really tough. Three? Then they’re a problem.
Those last two games the Thunder did an excellent job of holding down Denver’s scorers. Lawson got off a bit the first game and Nene played better the second one, but OKC really hasn’t seen the Nuggets start rolling. So far the Thunder defended Denver really well. If that continues, OKC is in great shape.
Denver has no one to guard KD. Remember, Arron Afflalo was out in the first two games. He’s going to make a difference for Denver. One way, is that he can probably guard Durant better than Chandler or Gallinari.
Still, the Nuggets don’t have that ideal defender to try and check KD. They don’t have someone long, tall and athletic than can contest every jump while also hanging with Durant as he runs off 50 screens each possession. They don’t have a Ron Artest that can change a series on his own just but holding OKC’s best player under water a bit.
It’s not that Durant was awesome in those last two games (30.0 ppg on 45 percent shooting), but he was certainly good. He’s a nightmare for the Nuggets to handle and if KD has it going, Denver is in trouble.
Westbrook vs. Lawson is probably the most important matchup. Ty Lawson could be the X-factor for Denver.
OKC can control the glass. Those last two games, OKC won the boards 50-41 and 46-40. The Thunder had 19 (nineteen!) offensive rebounds during the home game and allowed just five in the game in Denver (17 in OKC though…).
The Thunder should be able to win the rebounding war, which will be key. You don’t want to give the Nuggets a whole lot of second chances. If you play defense well enough to force a miss, you want the opportunity to go score. You don’t want to set up for another defensive possession. That’s the case in any game, but against Denver, it’s even more important.