The Thunder come into this game extremely hot, having finished the season strong and nearly capturing the two or three seed. Unfortunately, some dumb losses late in April and in February killed the Thunder's chances of doing so, and the Thunder ended up one game out of third, and two games out of second. The season was marked by some big changes for the Thunder, with two trades being made near the deadline that heavily shaped the team. What was once a undersized team that heavily focused on mid-range jumpers became a team defensively strong in the post that liked to fire a few more threes. The addition of Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed helped the Thunder contend with teams that had a legitimate center, and the addition of Daequan Cook and the emergence of James Harden allowed the Thunder for fire off a few threes and go on some serious runs.
Below: More Backstory, Matchups, Keys to Winning the Series, Prediction!
The Nuggets have had a much different season, one marked with many highs and lows. The team was tortured until February by the constant on again off again trade rumors involving Carmelo Anthony. After the dust settled, the Nuggets found themselves with a huge collection of solid role players, but no stars. That configuration turned out to be exactly what they needed. Suddenly, the Nuggets became the deepest team in the NBA, and one that could adjust their gameplan to whomever happened to be hot on a given night.
The rivalry between these two teams has been hot, to say the least. When the Thunder were first discovering their stride in 2008, the first historic game against the Nuggets game in late December, when Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony took turns hitting game changing shots. The rivalry evolved through the 2009-2010 season, as the Thunder were constantly nagged by the interior presence of the Nuggets. The rivalry was only escalated this year via a huge Christmas Day win at home for the Thunder, the various trades, and the Thunder beating the Nuggets twice this April. George Karl, coach of the Nuggets, has made various statements about the Thunder, notably saying that they would rather face the Mavericks than the Thunder, and that the Thunder are over-hyped. Additionally, the last two games between the Nuggets and Thunder have generated a total of 8 technicals, three for the Nuggets and fice for the Thunder. It's as good of a rivalry as I've ever seen.
Center: Kendrick Perkins vs. Nene Hilario
This matchup is where Kendrick Perkins earns his money. Perkins isn't a great scorer, but he prevents other centers from having career games against him. If he can turn Nene into a non-factor, it gives the Thunder a huge advantage. But, even if that doesn't happen, he keeps Nene from exploding above his average, much liek what would happen when he faced the softer Nenad Krstic. Advantage to the Nuggets.
This matchup won't generate a lot of buzz, but it's one that's a good indicator of how each team is doing. Ibaka generally keeps K-Mart out of the pain, but K-Mart is pretty good at nailing short jumpers. Martin hasn't really be stopped by Ibaka this year, but as long as he can out-rebound Martin, not give him any second chances, and hit a few of his infamous mid-range jumpers, all should be good in the hood. Advantage to the Thunder.
Small Forward: Kevin Durant vs. Wilson Chandler
If the Nuggets had one major weakness, it would be here. Chandler has been downright terrible against the Thunder, and even against other teams, he's not nearly the scorer that Durant is. Advantage to the Thunder.
Shooting Guard: Thabo Sefolosha vs. Aaron Affalo
The defender against the shooter. Aaron Affalo will get about ten points a game, and Thabo Sefolosha will help out the fast break and get some great steals. That's about all you can take from this matchup, but be sure to watch out for Affalo late in the game. Advantage to the Nuggets.
These guys are probably the two biggest X-Factors in this matchup. Their teams live and die on their performance. If Russell Westbrook loses his head and starts taking a slew of bad shots or making bad turnovers, the Thunder go down with him. If Ty Lawson becomes complacent and doesn't move the ball, the Nuggets go down with him. Slight advantage to the Thunder.
Chris Andersen is the biggest enigma of this series. It's clear the Nuggets were missing him in their matchups against the Thunder, simply because they had no one to replace him. Mosgov went down quick, and Koufos was a disaster. He should provide some stability to the Nuggets bench and prevent the Thunder from going on late third quarter runs. Al Harrington provides some scoring boost when he can get hot, while Mohammed and Collison mainly serve defensive purposes, though they can both put up 10 points on a good night. Scoring advantage to the Nuggets, defensive advantage to the Thunder.
All four of these guys are scorers. Smith is probably the best among them, followed by Harden, Gallinari, and Cook. Smith and Harden are of the same mold, though Smith is more athletic and has unlimited range, while Harden is kind of a toned town version of Smith. Gallinari is fond of getting to the line and can hit a three now and then, while Cook is a three point specialist. Look to see lots of scoring from this bunch, but the Nuggets have a clear advantage here.
Raymond Felton is a better scorer, but he's prone to low percentage nights. Eric Maynor hardly ever hurts the Thunder, but there are games where he has close to zero impact. So whomever wins this matchup highly fluctuates from night to night. Tie.
It's not out of the realm of possibility that we'll see one of these guys pop up on any given night. Nate Robinson can provide a good scoring boost to the defensively-minded Thunder, while Cole Aldrich would probably see time were a Thunder big man to get hurt. Mozgov and Forbes both could see time, depending on how George Karl is feeling on a certain night. All of them fit into their team's gameplans equally well, so I'm declaring this matchup a tie.
Coaches: George Karl vs. Scott Brooks
Scott Brooks will likely stick to his rotation no matter what happens, and is hesitant to make in-game changes on the fly. George Karl, on the other hand, has a 12 man roster to work with, and it's not out of the realm of possibility to see him use a different lineup every single game. It's a difference of styles, so I'll call it a tie.
The Nuggets collapsed last year without George Karl at the helm, so they're especially inspired this year with him there. Aaron Affalo will not play in game 1, and Andersen and Mozgov recently struggled with injuries. Nick Collison sat out the season finale, but that was probably just a precaution. And, as always, never doubt the Oklahoma City Arena crowd.
Keys to Winning the Series:
1. Make sure Kevin Durant outscores J.R. Smith, and Russell Westbrook outscores Ty Lawson/Raymond Felton.
2. Shut down either Nene or K-Mart. Keep the paint closed for business.
3. Don't get lured into a scoring battle, win with defense. The Thunder don't have the firepower to beat the Nuggets if they score over 100.
4. Don't lose your head. As we saw against the Clippers, when the Thunder get technicals and start making stupid plays, the whole ship falls apart.
5. Get out to a lead, and stick with it. It's a lot easier to control the Nuggets when they're fighting from behind.
Game 1 (OKC): Denver 104, Oklahoma City 101
Game 2 (OKC): Oklahoma City 110, Denver 89
Game 3 (Denver): Oklahoma City 104, Denver 94
Game 4 (Denver): Oklahoma City 105, Denver 103
Game 5 (OKC): Denver 99, Oklahoma City 95
Game 6 (Denver): Denver 111, Oklahoma City 91
Game 7 (OKC): Oklahoma City 101, Denver 99
Final Prediction: The Oklahoma City Thunder Win in 7 Games.
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