Oklahoma City Thunder vs Denver Nuggets Quarter-Finals: A Post-Mortem

Now that round one is in the books, I think it would be instructive to consider what we observed and what it means going forward. There is a fierce opponent lurking in the near future, and the fact that it could be the Spurs or Grizzlies matters not. Both teams won the regular season series against the Thunder, and each represents its own set of problems. For now though, let's consider what we have learned.

1. Re-examination of my series preview.

If you recall, the Denver Stiffs' Nate Timmons and I actually did a fun experiment where we previewed each team from the opposition's perspective. Here were my five discussion points as to how the Nuggets could win.

  1. Steal Game One. As we and the Thunder's basketball rim all know, this one came pretty darned close to happening. Durant's late series theatrics aside, Game One was easily the best played on both sides in the whole series. Durant and Westbrook combined for 72 points, which was just enough to overcome the Nuggets' onslaught. I know that Nugget fans have recited it ad nauseum, but it is hard to get around the fact that, if Kendrick Perkins' goal-tend had been called correctly, these two teams might still be playing.

  2. Find the Thunder's in-game weakness. My point here was that the Thunder frequently see swoons in the middle two quarters, and smart teams have attacked those soft points well. Denver actually did a decent job in asserting themselves in the second halves of three of the games. In games 3, 4, and 5 the Nuggets were able to surge ahead in the 3rd quarters to hold small leads late in the game. Unfortunately for them, the Nuggets followed up those third quarters in games 3 and 5 with 4th quarters where they only managed 21 points each time. The Thunder were able to recover from their lapses, catch up, and close out.

  3. Make the Thunder bigs move. I think this is the one area where the Nuggets really failed. If you recall the Game One fall-out, Nuggets fans, though sad at the loss, were ecstatic with the way Nene came out strong. He was running high screen and rolls, finishing at the rim, and neither Kendrick Perkins nor Serge Ibaka could stay in front of him. Thunder fans (including yours truly) were very concerned if this shot of confidence would lead the Nuggets to running the offense through him, keeping him in open space where Perkins could not contend, and watch Nene pour in more 20 point, 10 rebound games. To this we can say that the Thunder coaching staff did a tremendous job in figuring out how to guard Nene. Here were his series point totals: 22-16-15-10-8. By Game Five, Nene had been completely marginalized. He had no room to work, no open shot attempts, and continued to struggle at the free throw line. Due to the Thunder's scheming and their interior play, Nene became an afterthought.

  4. Be physical with Kevin Durant. I had argued before that I did not think that Aaron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, or Wilson Chandler could do much to slow down Durant, and I think my prediction was accurate.  He scored 41 in Games 1 and 5, and 23 in a blowout win. The only game where Durant "struggled" was in Game Three, where everybody struggled. In just about every other situation though, Durant delivered. I'm not even sure that it would have mattered much if Denver tried alternative techniques. By the end of Game Five, it was clear that Durant had figured out ways to get himself free to receive the ball. Earlier in the season, he was much more prone to drifting away from the rim, hoisting deep 3-pointers, and allowing himself to be marginalized. In this series though, his posture changed completely. Durant got a taste of real playoff basketball, and he found out that he likes it.

  5. Force Russell Westbrook into "hero" mode. As I had predicted, this factor was the riskiest that OKC had; would Westbrook delve into his over-aggressive, over-emotional mode? Would the coaching staff recognize it and rein him in before it cost them a game? In Game Four, we had that answer. Even more-so than Westbrook's late game attempts at saving the Thunder, what concerned me most was that early on, Westbrook seemed to be letting his emotions get the best of him. He's always at his best when he's playing dangerous; it allows him to tap into something that he has in 5th gear that other players don't. However, if that supercharged Westbrook engine seizes up, you're left with expensive wreckage on the side of the road. The interesting thing about it all is, we actually got a preview of this sort of thing in the April 5th game. However, the difference was that when Westbrook started to struggle in that game, Coach Brooks played Eric Maynor for extended minutes in order to give Westbrook time to down. The strategy worked, and Russ was back to full badger mode in the next three games.

2. Things We've Learned.

As a big picture composite, the main aspect  I take away from the Denver series is that the Thunder are now "battle-tested." As the series washes down the memory drain it will become more and more difficult to remember the details of how each game broke down. With the exception of Game Two, each of the rest were extremely competitive, with the outcome still in doubt all the way down to the final seconds. If you remove Game Two, the margins of victory were: 4, 3, 3, 3. So on average, we can say that the Thunder were a little bit more than one possession better than the Nuggets. I still believe that the Thunder were better at almost every position. With the exception of Kevin Durant vs Wilson Chandler, I think the incremental advantage by position was small.

Also, people will soon forget that the Nuggets had an amazing run to close out the regular season. They had notched wins on their belt against the likes of the Lakers, Spurs, and Mavericks. They were 8-5 against playoff teams after the All-Star break. They were first in offense and in the top half of most other meaningful statistics. The Nuggets were a very, very good team and an absolute joy to watch.

And I think that is the best thing Thunder fans can take away - OKC made a very good team look rather mediocre. OKC took away many of the facets of the Nuggets' attack that made them so scary - the fast breaks, the passing, the offensive rebounding, and the depth. All of those assets were all rendered inert. Despite never really bringing an "A" game, the Thunder figured out ways to slow if not stop the Nuggets while playing in a rabid playoff environment. The Thunder did not wilt under expectations.

Here are some individual player notes:

  • Kevin Durant - much has been said and there will be more to be said. Let's just enjoy remembering how he closed out the series.
  • Russell Westbrook - He is going to continue to be on the hot seat, having each of his decisions fact-checked and over-analyzed.  People will forget that Westbrook carried the team through the first third of the season while Durant worked to get groggy legs out of his system. They will forget that Westbrook won the "Player of the Week" award four times this season, which was not only twice more than Durant, but one more than any body else in the West. (In other words, amidst a conference of Kobe's Duncan's, Dirk's, Paul's, and Durant's, he was seen as the best player four out of 24 times.) That kid is still there, and he's still ready to get it on. It will be up to his teammates to remind and encourage him that he's still the guy that can dominate.
  • Serge Ibaka - He's had his coming out party, both offensively and defensively. Against either the Grizzlies or the Spurs, he presents a huge match-up problem. What impressed me most is that he has continued to combine his unreal athletic ability with a growing knowledge and discipline on how to play proper defense. He is now a weapon that must be dealt with on both ends.
  • Kendrick Perkins - Worth every penny, and it still kills me that analysts look at him in terms of his final stat line. I don't think there could be a less meaningful way to measure Perkins' worth.
  • James Harden - the game is wide open for you, my man. When he is aggressively engaged and playing along side either Westbrook, Durant, or both, he is going to face a defender who will not be able to contend with his size, strength, and overall game. He must remain aggressive though; otherwise he turns into a mediocre 3-point specialist, and if that's the case, OKC might as well just go with Daequan Cook.
  • Scott Brooks - His understated personality probably helped him out a lot, because he never fell for all the baiting that George Karl laid out for him. Karl tried to get into a little bit of a tete-a-tete, but Brooks never bit. It is actually a testament to the public self-discretion that Brooks put into place practices during the regular season, such as not engaging in public banter, that have carried over to the post-season. It will continue to serve the team well. On top of that, Brooks demonstrated he has come a long way in game-planning. Brooks designed some excellent late-game sets that the Thunder converted into scoring opportunities. He was not flummoxed in how to deal with Nene. Lastly, he knew precisely when it was time to get out of the way and let Durant go to work.

3. Thoughts on the Nuggets.

Since WTLC is still a relatively young site with a young fan base, I did not really know what to expect when we essentially had to go head-to-head against a bona fide NBA universe of coverage with sites like the Denver Stiffs, but it proved to be hugely constructive and entertaining. You may have found yourself hating the Nuggets for five games (and possibly some of their fans to boot), but hopefully that hate will subside and we can acknowledge that the Nuggets pulled off an amazing feat 3/4 of the way through the season. They completely changed their roster, philosophy, and approach, and they did it in an extremely competitive Western Conference. I know that I had predicted they would fade out of the picture after Carmelo Anthony was traded, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. They surged ahead, and with but a few games to play nearly chased down the Thunder for the 4-seed. It was a remarkable run of exceptional playoff-intensity basketball.

I'm not sure what the Nuggets will do with their current roster, but it feels like it is about 8/10 there. If I had to offer one thing, it would be that their front line suffers in a way that OKC's did before the Perkins trade. The only difference is that they have the opposite piece of the puzzle. While the Thunder had the long, rangy defender (Ibaka) and were missing the defensive tugboat to hold the line, the Nuggets already have that piece (Nene) and they need the more athletic player to compliment him. Kenyon Martin is a valuable piece, but you could see over time that Martin is not as spry and agile as he once was. Also, as we noted, Ibaka is a burgeoning offensive option. The Nuggets need more front-line scoring so that they can better maximize the post interplay with Nene. 

Lastly, I think it should be exciting to see whether Danilo Gallinari can round into a primary scoring option. In a series that was pitted as "team" vs "all-stars," the all-stars won because Durant and Westbrook were able to create their own offense. The closest thing that Denver had to that type of player was Ty Lawson. Lawson is a nice piece and a good creator, but unfortunately unless your name is Chris Paul, a tiny point guard is always going to have trouble finishing when the game is on the line. Gallinari though, he's a guy who could make that work. He has the shooting ability, aggressiveness, and attitude that could make that a working option.

I'm sure it will be a long and painful off-season, as they all are. And I'm also sure that there is little consolation in getting beat by a contender, especially when the Nuggets were seen as a contender. With a few tweaks though, the Nuggets might be far from finished and the Thunder could see them again in a year's time.

4. What comes next?

That's easy. I'm sure the Thunder kids are working on the next challenge now. Both of those teams looming on the horizon need a little bit of payback.

***

post script

With this post, I've decided to retire my online handle, the pseudonym "Dogburt." It has done me well for over 10 years, but with the greater exposure that writing here has brought, I figured it was time to start blogging as a grown-up. Henceforth, I'll be dropping "Dogburt" in exchange for my name: J.A. Sherman, and you should be seeing that byline pop up in the near future.

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