When we last checked in with the SB Nation blog Denver Stiffs and their venerable blogger Nate Timmons, we were discussing some of the various things learned after Thunder-Nuggets week. Now that the first round of the playoffs are solidified and both squads are making preparations to do battle, we figured that nobody else was more qualified to tell us how exactly the Thunder can beat the Nuggets than Mr. Timmons himself.
Take it away, Nate.
Dogburt, glad to be back and I think we both knew that this series between the Nuggets and Thunder was going to take place. It's too bad that this series has to take place now as I think both these teams have a lot of potential and each has a great chance to make the Western Conference Finals and maybe even the Finals.
Neither one of these teams boasts a ton of playoff experience collectively, but some individual players have been key pieces to long playoff runs in the recent past - namely Kenyon Martin, Kendrick Perkins, Nene, Nate Robinson, Chris Andersen, Nazr Mohammed, Al Harrington, and J.R. Smith. The rest of the players that will be featured in this series form a mix of guys that got a taste of the post-season last year and newbies that will be making their first playoff appearances. That could make for some interesting play until the nerves calm down.
And as I see it, the Thunder will be the team playing with high expectations as most pundits are already talking penciling them in for a first-round victory. It will be up to Scott Brooks to get his team focused and from what the Thunder showed against the Lakers in the 2010 playoffs - they will be ready. But playing with expectations can be a tricky thing.
And the usual expectations for a series preview will be different as well. Usually things start with me, the Nuggets blogger, blabbing about what Denver needs to do to beat the Thunder, but thanks to Dogburt's excellent idea - I'll be waxing poetically about the chinks in the Nuggets' armor.
George Karl is already toying with the idea of starting Raymond Felton at shooting guard. This move might be made in part because Arron Afflalo's left hamstring is about as good as a Ford Edsel (he's re-injured it in all three of his recent comeback attempts, but says he'll be ready for Game 1). Ty Lawson was handed the reigns of this team after Chauncey Billups was traded, and while he's played some outstanding basketball - he can be dissuaded by an aggressive defense to play passively. The Nuggets need Lawson to focus on tempo as Denver is a much better team when they play at a quicker pace. The Nuggets don't need to play as a fast-breaking team in order to win all their games, but Lawson's speed and aggression wins games. Lawson however is only in his second season, so the responsibility to run this team is a big one and Russell Westbrook should try to take advantage of Lawson's inexperience. Felton has only appeared in the post-season one time (last season), so he's not an incredible fountain of experience either. Although, both Denver point guards have played in big games and can draw a bit on their experience of leading National Championship teams to the promise land. The college and NBA game are about the same as apples-and-oranges, but leadership stays with you and both Felton and Lawson have it and have always had it.
Along with the point guard spots, the Nuggets rely heavily on Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler. Neither one of those guys have ever appeared in the post-season and they could get rattled. I've seen the playoffs do funny things to players. Carmelo Anthony struggled for his first few post-season appearances, along with J.R. Smith - so while the Nuggets need Gallo and Chandler to play at a high-level they might struggle to find their playoff legs right out of the gate. I am hopeful because Gallo and Chandler never appear to be phased by any situation. Gallo plays without fear and that can be good and bad. Chandler could win a $230 million Powerball drawing and not even crack a smile. You could take a sledgehammer to Wilson's new Range Rover (no clue what he actually drives, but that's what I'd buy if I were an NBA player) and he'd probably shrug and walk away. The two players seem to have ice water running through their veins, as they say.
The Nuggets don't have a ton of playoff experience at the key positions on the floor - point guard, shooting guard, and small forward. The Thunder could exploit this in a few different ways, but I think trying to get the ball out of Lawson's hands is their best option to cause chaos.
When the Nuggets are on offense.
Free throws *cough* free throws. The Nuggets have struggled like crazy from the foul line and they give up too many free points from the charity stripe - not sure how this can be fixed other than hoping the players can sink the freebies. Like I just mentioned above. Lawson can become passive with an aggressive defender that he doesn't feel comfortable playing against. The Nuggets starting point guard has games where his confidence is sky high and he is just a menace and disrupts everything a defense is trying to do by cutting through the lane whenever he wants. But at other times Lawson will give up the ball after crossing half-court and not look to get it back to run the offense as he heads to the corner. When Lawson isn't running the offense (with Felton on the bench) the Nuggets can struggle to create shots and can be turned into a jump shooting team.
My biggest fear in this series is the Thunder being able to turn the Nuggets into a primarily jump shooting team. Lawson and Felton must must must not let Westbrook and the Thunder defense keep them from driving the ball into the paint. The Nuggets have been struggling at the free throw line, but they must continue to attack the rim. In baseball they say it's important to get to the opposition's bullpen and for the Nuggets it will be imperative to try to get the Thunder's Perkins and Serge Ibaka into foul trouble and force Brooks to play Mohammed and Nick Collison. If Denver isn't getting into the paint and forcing the issue at the rim they will be losing the momentum battle and allowing the Thunder bigs to gain a lot of confidence and comfort. The Nuggets are a dynamic team when they create chaos for the defense and when they keep the opposition guessing. Denver has plenty of scoring options and they have been sharing the scoring load and the ball very well.
Nene isn't a big imposing center like Andrew Bynum, but he is very quick for his size and needs to find his scoring touch against Perkins or Ibaka. Denver likes to get Nene involved early in games and if he gets it going on offense it seems to open things up for the Nuggets shooters and for cutters to find open looks at the rim. Nene is a very willing passer, too willing most times, and will never take a ton of shots (he took 13+ shots just 8 times in 75 games this season). The Brazilian has had trouble scoring against big centers like Bynum, but usually plays quite well against average sized centers like Perkins. He did struggle this season against Al Horford of the Atlanta Hawks for some reason and Perkins (of similar size) will have his hands full trying to keep up with Nene's array of offensive moves. If Nene can get his game going around the rim that usually leads to good things for the Nuggets. If Nene struggles inside he can be turned into a jump shooter and will even not look to shoot if he isn't finding success and that is a recipe for disaster for Denver as he's the Nuggets best post player.
Denver likes to set up their inside game to create open shooting on the perimeter. The Nuggets like to shoot the three and as they say, you can live by the three and die by the three. The Nuggets have a collection of streaky shooters and they must combat their cold shooting streaks with aggressive play and offensive rebounding. With Birdman Andersen on the shelf the Nuggets struggled to grab offensive boards because they lacked a guy who makes his living by burning his energy on the glass. Rebounding is always about effort and the Nuggets can at times lose that effort battle. Chandler, Martin, and Andersen are all good rebounders and Nene will go through stretches where he hits the glass hard on the offensive end as well. Extra possessions make champions - ask the Lakers players. Birdman came back this week and looked like he found a time machine and replaced himself with the 2009 Birdman that was a leaping fool and his rebounding could be a big factor for the Nuggets when he's in the game.
The Nuggets' biggest offensive strengths start with the point guard spot. Lawson and Felton have to push the pace and attack the defense. Nene must use his post game to beat Perkins or Ibaka and the Nuggets need to combat their streaky shooting with an attacking style and offensive rebounding. If Denver can play that way they will be tough to beat. And their offense can really get going and feed off their aggressive/take chance defense.
When the Nuggets are on defense.
It's no secret that Karl wants his defense to create turnovers to feed the fast-break offense. Denver found a lot of success in the 2009 playoffs against Chris Paul by trapping him and forcing him into rare turnovers. In the 2010 playoffs, the Nuggets were carved up by Deron Williams who averaged 25.8 points and 11.2 assists in six games against Denver and led his Jazz to a series victory. Westbrook is more in the Williams mold than he is in the Paul mold physically. Denver will have their hands full trying to slow him down, but the key for this series is in Westbrook. The Nuggets must find a way to defend and frustrate the UCLA product. Denver tried trapping him a bit, though not as aggressively as they have other guards, but Westbrook was took quick around the pick and got by the Denver big man too fast. Did the Nuggets show all they could against the Thunder defensively? I don't think they did in Oklahoma City, but I also don't think the Thunder point guard will be surprised by anything the Nuggets try to do to him.
It's also no secret that Thabo Sefolosha is not the greatest scoring threat. Denver might be able to away with putting Lawson on Sefolosha and putting the bigger Afflalo on Westbrook - but can Afflalo keep up with Russell? And if the Nuggets are forced to try to trap Westbrook a lot he's smart enough to make quick decisions and the Nuggets aggressive defense does give teams open shooters. It'll be up to guys like Sefolosha, Ibaka, James Harden, and others to make Denver pay for leaving them open. I'm not very worried about Perkins on offense, but if the Nuggets are slow to rotate off switches and rotations they could be hurt by Perkins and even Collison. My biggest beef with the Nuggets though is leaving shooters open. And nobody can find their shot easier in the NBA than Kevin Durant.
The Nuggets best chance of slowing Durant down is locking Chandler up on him. Chandler will likely be coming off the bench so it could be Gallo who is tasked with covering the scoring machine. K-Mart will likely offer to cover Durant and might find himself on him at certain times, but I think this is a mistake. If K-Mart is on Durant the Thunder not only have an edge in that match-up, but it pulls a rebounder for the Nuggets away from the hoop and could result in getting Denver's best big man defender in unnecessary foul trouble. I say put Gallo and Chandler on him and hope for the best ... less than 30 points.
If Durant and Westbrook are having off shooting nights Denver must take advantage by securing rebounds. Nene can be a dominant rebounder when he's motivated, and he can be motivated by anger (hello Perkins!). K-Mart is a reliable rebounder so I would hate to see that negated by having him out on the perimeter trying to cover Durant; who can shoot over him as easily as he can anyone else. All the Thunder bigs and even Sefolosha like to attack the offensive glass and the Nuggets can't afford to give up extra possessions - even if they have been prone to doing so in the regular season at times.
It seems like the Nuggets best option in this series is to try to bottle up Westbrook as best they can and try to force the Thunder to rely on Durant. And with Durant the Nuggets need to not over-think covering him and allow Gallo and Chandler to go to work. Extra possessions are key and Denver must cut down on OKC's chances by protecting the defensive glass.
Karl is a battle tested coach who has a certain quirkiness in his style. He has said he plans on mixing and matching lineups as Denver hasn't been healthy enough to really get a set rotation down and he likes to play guys that he feels are in a groove. Sometimes Karl falls in love with awkward lineups and stays with them even after they are exploited. He is a coach that likes his players to figure things out on the floor and wont call timeouts to stop runs made by the opposition. Karl has been re-energized by this team and I expect he'll be very active in working the refs and fighting for his players, but again he can fall into some traps of staying with lineups that struggle. And the Nuggets don't always play well coming out of timeouts and Nuggets fans can attest to weak out of bounds plays that are hopefully a thing of the past.
Both home crowds are fantastic and give each team a boost and in the playoffs when the crowd is excited that energy feeds the players. Both teams will have a tough time winning on the road, but the Nuggets must find a way to win once and maybe even twice if they expect to advance. Karl has his team playing much better on the road since the all-star break and hopefully the momentum the Nuggets found away from Denver will carry over and translate into a couple big road wins. In addition to the surprising roar of a home crowd, these teams will need some players to fill in and have some surprising games. The Nuggets have a few more weapons than the Thunder and have multiple guys that can get hot at the right times. Role players like Robert Horry became legends this time of year and whichever team can get some memorable performances from unlikely faces will walk away the winner of this series.
The Thunder have been on a roll and if they stay that way the Nuggets will have their hands full. The Nuggets have been playing well against teams not named the Thunder and need to forget the two recent losses. This series should be electric and it's a shame that these teams have to play in round one. But to be the best you have to go through the best and I think whoever wins this series will go on to find a lot of success in the next round as well.
I think Denver has to find a way to win either Game 1 or Game 2 to have a shot at winning. With the way the Nuggets have played on the road since this new team came together I feel like they can win any game away from the Pepsi Center. I also think it will be impossible for the Nuggets to hold serve on their home court so they will need to win at least two games in Oklahoma City if they want to advance. It may be insane to think Denver can win a Game 7 in OKC, but that's just what they are going to have to do.
Nuggets in 7.