This is what the Thunder wanted. This was the goal. But it’s pretty scary to go from happy to be here to you better win. The team had to deal with expectations from the beginning of the season and I think with 55 wins and a division title, they at least met them.
But tonight, all of that is erased. Those 55 wins? They’re gone, they don’t matter. That division title banner? Forget about it. When the clock starts running tonight, the Thunder had better be ready to go because all that fun we had the last six months doesn’t mean anything if they’re not.
Because that’s actually my great fear about this series. I know the Thunder’s the better team. I know the matchups favor them. But it’s the intangibles that scare me. Oklahoma City is now the favorite coming in. People are glossing over this series and talking about the Western Finals. That makes me nervous.
I’m ready to get the games going because I’m ready to find out if the Thunder will play tight. If they’re going to be nervous. But we’re still a number of hours away and all we can do right now is wait. And talk more about it.
So let’s break this whole thing down.
The Starting Five
PG: This will be fun. Speed on speed. I’m not sure anyone is faster than Russell Westbrook end-to-end with the ball in his hands. Except Ty Lawson (and maybe Derrick Rose). Westbrook is bigger and stronger though, which gives him the edge. But Lawson is the most important part to the Denver offense. He scored a then career-high 28 points against OKC in Denver two weeks ago.
SG: Assuming Arron Afflalo is healthy, this is a big edge for the Nuggets. Thabo Sefolosha doesn’t add much on the offensive side and his defensive skills aren’t needed that much on Afflalo. But OKC does use James Harden off the bench much in the same way Dallas uses Jason Terry. Then again, Denver has J.R. Smith who is maybe this series’ overall X-Factor…
SF: I already went over it, but Denver just doesn’t have a good defender for Durant. Both Gallinari and Chandler will have their chances, as well as Afflalo, but we’re talking about maybe the most gifted offensive player in the game.
PF: Really this is a push because both Kenyon Martin and Serge Ibaka, while good players, aren’t going to do a ton more than block, rebound and score occasionally on put-backs.
C: Other than the point guard matchup, all eyes will be here. Perkins and Nene already tussled once and there’s no doubt that they’ll likely go at each other again. Perkins did a really good job on Nene in the first meeting holding him to just 3-10 shooting, but Nene came back with a solid 6-9 effort in the last meeting.
Both teams have very strong benches. As mentioned, Harden is more of a bench starter for OKC. Eric Maynor is a terrific backup point guard. Daequan Cook a nice specialist. Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed good veteran big men. Denver has excellent weapons too with Raymond Felton, Chander, Smith and Chris Andersen. The benches will be big and both are very good.
George Karl and Scott Brooks know each other well. Brooks was an assistant under Karl for three years. Karl is the more experienced one and has been both the favorite and the underdog before. This is Brooks first rodeo as a playoff favorite. But this series is more about the players than the coaches, so I don’t really think this matchup matters a whole lot.
Five Important Questions
1. Can Denver stop Kevin Durant?
In the two recent games, Durant averaged 30.0 points per game on 45 percent shooting and really didn’t get much of a challenge from Denver defenders. Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari shared the assignment, but the Nuggets tried switching on every screen Durant ran off of.
What result was a bunch of mismatches with Durant catching Nene or Kenyon Martin one-on-one. That wouldn’t be a problem, except Durant is taller than both and can shoot over anyone on top of driving past them.
OKC is 22-1 this season when Durant shoots better than 50 percent from the floor. Read that last sentence again. Really, without Ron Artest last year holding Durant down against the Lakers, that series might’ve been very different. The Nuggets have to find a way to check Durant, otherwise they’ll have a hard time checking the Thunder.
2. What kind of series will it be?
Why is everyone acting like this will be a high scoring, up and down series? The two games these teams played in the last couple weeks were won by the Thunder by an average score of 102.5 to 91.5. Oklahoma City plays some serious defense now. Since Perkins joined the starting lineup, the Thunder are only second to Chicago in defensive efficiency.
Obviously the Nuggets like to run and the Thunder aren’t shy about it, but if these games are 120-117 like everyone is acting, Scott Brooks might throw up. Kendrick Perkins most definitely will. (You know, from the running.)
This series will be more about stops and rebounding than anything else. Denver struggled in the halfcourt against the Thunder the last two games and OKC excelled, especially late. It’s not about outscoring or outgunning each other. It’s about out-stopping each other.
3. Who’s scary on the other side?
You know who terrifies me? J.R. Smith. If Smith gets rolling, he’s one of the best bench scorers in the league and can completely change the complexion of a game. And the bad part is, it’s not really a matter of OKC stopping him. Smith pretty much only stops himself. Or I guess George Karl does because he yanks him.
Smith just feels like an X-factor player because of his ability to score in bunches. The Nuggets are set up to be searching for crunch time scoring and Smith has the potential to be that player.
4. Do the last two games mean anything?
More than really any other series, we got the best taste of what to expect over the last couple weeks with this one. Not only did the Thunder and Nuggets play each other — home and home, too — but the games were important at the time. The Northwest Division title was still on the line. OKC took the game in Denver 101-94, handing the Nuggets their first loss at home since the Melo trade and snapping a seven-game win streak. Then back in Oklahoma City a week later, the Thunder dropped the Nuggets 104-89 with a relentless defensive effort.
I think the most important thing to come from those two games is the fact OKC won in Denver. That was a big mental hurdle to jump. And I think just in the way the two games played out, it was pretty clear that the Thunder have an edge. Some will say the Nuggets’ injuries made a big difference and that Denver didn’t play up to its potential.
5. Who wins in a fight — Perk or Nene?
The three P’s: Pace, Perk and perimeter defense. The Nuggets play at the second fastest pace in the league (95.6). They want to run. They want to get Ty Lawson, Chandler, Martin and everyone else out in the open floor.
Oklahoma City isn’t opposed to running by any means, but the Thunder definitely want to keep the Nuggets off the highway. In the last game in OKC, the game was played at a pace of just 90.0, something that definitely favored the Thunder. In the halfcourt, the Nuggets struggled scoring against OKC’s man-to-man defense.
To go with that, inside Kendrick Perkins gives OKC the ability to leave single coverage on Nene. That means the Thunder’s perimeter defenders can hang on Denver’s list of good shooters. The Nuggets want you collapsing and rotating everywhere so they can find a marksman open on the outside. OKC didn’t afford Denver that, holding the Nuggets to just 10-30 from 3 in the last two games.
This will be a terrific series, no matter the number of games it takes. Some are feeling the Nuggets in an upset as that’s what a lot of the numbers suggest. But I don’t see it. I think everyone agrees that the Nuggets may have actually become a better team trading Melo, but against the Thunder, it hurt them. Kevin Durant gets an easier job, the Nuggets don’t have a good halfcourt option late in games and OKC actually matches up really well with Denver now.
The Nuggets are dangerous, especially when a couple guys get hot. But that’s what it’ll take. They’ll have to have big games from J.R. Smith (good luck relying on him), Gallinari, Lawson and Chandler to move on past OKC. The Thunder know what they’re getting from Durant and Westbrook. They know they can play defense. I like this Nuggets team a lot. Just not against Oklahoma City. My prediction? Thunder in five. See, even my own confidence scares me.