I think I’d like to modify my stance from three weeks ago that Thunder fans should fear the Trail Blazers more as a potential playoff foe than the Nuggets. The Nuggets scare the crap out of me right now.
A lot of that of course has to do with Denver continuing to win. Like a lot of people, I figured the Nuggets would eventually cool down at least a little bit after the tear they started following the Carmelo Anthony trade. But they haven’t. They’re right there with the Lakers, Thunder, Bulls and Heat as one of the hottest teams in the NBA right now.
But what really makes me think that they’re the team Oklahoma City would have the most trouble with in the first round is that they have no pressure. They played until just after the All-Star break with a gigantic black cloud following them in the Anthony trade stuff. Once the trade actually went down, few expected much from them in terms of a late run. Many expected something akin to what the Jazz are going through after the Deron Wiliams trade, although probably not as severe. It’s hard to win in the NBA without a true star, especially in the playoffs, and Denver doesn’t have one.
The fan base surely is delirious at this point. They didn’t expect this kind of run after the break even with Anthony, much less without him. Nuggets fans are positively giddy. My friends in Denver confirm this. The Nuggets have already exceeded the fans’ post-trade expectations. They’re playing with house money, and the regular season still has a couple of weeks to go. No matter what happens, the city is proud of its team.
You know who that reminds me of? Last season’s Thunder. The circumstances are entirely different, to be sure. Denver fans have already tasted a bit of playoff success in recent seasons, and Oklahoma City’s hadn’t ever. But remember the moment (that still gives me goosebumps) from the end of Game 6 last year when Thunder fans instantly gave their team a standing ovation when the series ended in defeat? If there’s any team in the NBA that could get the same response from its fans after a first-round exit, it has to be the Nuggets. Maybe the 76ers could get a similar reaction because of their tough start, or even the Grizzlies if they give the Spurs or Lakers a nice run, but I don’t know.
So what does that mean? Denver is going to be loose. The players will have no weight on their shoulders as they go through warm-ups in Game 1 in a sea of blue in Oklahoma City. They’ll be a confident bunch, and they’ll be ready to compete. But the Thunder, for the first time in the burgeoning careers of most of the young players, will be feeling a little bit of pressure. If the Thunder loses to Denver with home court, it’s an upset. The fans won’t be serenading them with a standing ovation if the series ends in Oklahoma City with a Nuggets win, that’s for sure. I can only imagine what the talk will be like over the summer, or during an extended lockout, in the Daily Thunder comment section in particular. Fans will not be pleased.
Now, the Thunder is a confident bunch itself. It’s not like Oklahoma City is limping into the playoffs, as it sort of did last year when stumbling a bit down the stretch, and there was no limping in the Lakers series at all. I think the Thunder players will be confident, focused and ready. But there’s no doubt who will be feeling more pressure as the series unfolds.
There’s one thing that Oklahoma City can certainly control that could plant a seed of doubt into the minds of the otherwise red-hot Denver players: the two upcoming games the teams play against each other. If the Thunder can win both of those, you know that will be in the back of the minds of the Nuggets as they prepare to face Oklahoma City, especially if the Thunder can then win Game 1 at home. It’s obvious to me that Oklahoma City is the better team in an 82-game NBA season, and should certainly be the better team in a seven-game series with home court. Winning one of the upcoming two games would be nice, and expected to be honest, but winning both would send a message.
There’s still time for Denver to cool off a little bit before the playoffs start. The Nuggets play Sacramento tonight and then start a tough four-game stretch (@LAL, OKC, @DAL, @OKC) before finishing with three games they should win (MIN, GSW, @UTA). Going better than 5-3 in that stretch would be impressive, and 5-3 is already cooling off when compared to their recent tear (winners of 14 of their last 18).
What keeps me warm at night when pondering this potential series is Denver’s 14-22 road record, which is the worst of any current West playoff team and far worse than the Thunder’s mirror-image 22-14. The Nuggets are lethal at home — at 31-7 they have the third-fewest home losses in the NBA — and that scares me a bit. But the Thunder seems more likely to steal one in Denver than the Nuggets stealing one in Oklahoma City. Game 7s scare me because anything can happen, but I could see the Thunder doing to Denver what the Lakers did to OKC last season by winning a Game 6. Winning Game 3 or 4 would be better for my cardiovascular health, though.
Maybe my mind will change again after Denver and Oklahoma City square off in the upcoming home-and-home. Maybe it’ll change again as soon as tonight if Portland blisters the Thunder. But the Trail Blazers don’t even come close to beating the Thunder last Sunday if Gerald Wallace doesn’t go for 76 points on 97 percent shooting (or whatever it actually was, I already blacked it out and that’s what it seemed like). Combine the Nuggets’ looseness, hot streak and high-altitude home venue, and I’m going to be stopping by Walgreens for some antacids if Denver is the Thunder’s first-round opponent.