Time: 7:00 PM Central Standard Time
Place: Oklahoma City Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
TV: FSOKHD, Altitude Sports
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1), 99X 97.9 FM
Tonight's game marks the conclusion of the regular season series between the Denver Nuggets and the Thunder. As we're all aware, the Thunder defeated the Nuggets on April 5, marking as big a game as any they've had in the second half of the season. That win essentially locked in the Thunder's home court advantage for the first round, brought a reality check to Denver after the Nuggets had run roughshod through the Western elites, and makes tonight's game all the more pressure-packed. If the Thunder and Nuggets do indeed meet in the first round, then this game will tell us whether the two teams are on equal footing, or if the Thunder have in fact "given notice" to Denver.
What do the Thunder need to do tonight to win the regular season series?
Since the early games this season have no meaningful bearing on tonight's game, due to the makeover each team has experienced, we need to look at what the Thunder did right and wrong last Tuesday.
1. What the Thunder did right.
a) Interior defense. The play of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, and Nazr Mohammed was crucial in making the Nuggets one-dimensional. It is true that the Nuggets were short-handed in their front line, as they lost Timofey Mozgov early on, and Chris Andersen was not playing. Even so, the Nuggets' offensive scheme does depend on Kenyon Martin and Nene getting some offense on the inside in order to give additional space to their shooters in the half-court set. However, since the Thunder were able to match up against Martin and Nene so well using few double-teams, the two of them were kept from getting a lot of easy scores and rebounds. In addition, the single-coverage of each allowed the Thunder perimeter defenders to stay at home on the Nuggets' shooters. As a result, there were very few open looks for the Nuggets from 3-point land (Nuggets only shot 5-12).
b) Rebounding. The Thunder won this battle 50-41, including the offensive battle, 8-5. The Nuggets like to play fast in transition, so by limiting the number of Denver rebounds, the Thunder were able to neutralize this component of their attack. In the end, the Nuggets had only eight fast break points on the night. In the past two games, Perkins and Ibaka have worked hard to combine for 25 rebounds. As long as the two maintain this rebounding advantage, the Thunder can continue to mitigate one of the main facets of the Nuggets' attack.
c) Kevin Durant drives. Durant finished with a strong 32 points in the last game, but I was beginning to wonder if he was going to fall into the familiar trap of starting the game hot but then falling back on a deluge of 3-point attempts in the second half. When Durant starts hoisting threes, his impact on the offense falls measurably. I know the guys like Mayberry at the Oklahoman and Young at Daily Thunder think that if Durant can step into an open 3-pointer that it's a shot he should always take, but I respectfully disagree. Durant isn't Ray Allen or even Daequan Cook. The 3-ball isn't the best part of his game. Durant is at his best when he's about 18 feet and closer and he can use his abilities to drive to the rim or take step-back jumpers. The closer attack also puts a great deal more pressure on the defense and naturally lends itself to more trips to the free throw line.
Granted, Durant does not yet possess the demeanor or physicality to attack-attack-attack, but when the moment arrives where he must deliver, let's hope Durant is moving toward the basket rather than away from it.
2. What the Thunder did wrong.
a) Stopping the drives. This first item is the most obvious. The Thunder simply had no answer for Nuggets guard Ty Lawson from beginning to end. Lawson's drives in the end of the game, where he want from end to end for lay-ups in a matter of seconds, were almost enough to close the gap. Lawson finished with 28 points and was the main reason why the Nuggets finished with 46 points in the paint.
It is fool's gold to think that the Thunder can eliminate the drives of Lawson, Raymond Felton, and J.R. Smith completely. What was alarming though was how few of these attempts at the rim appeared to be challenged. As a team the Thunder only had five blocks, a lowish number when you consider how many shots came at the fingertips of a man who stands under six feet tall.
If the Thunder can't block the shots, then they need to do a better job funneling the drives to the sidelines versus the middle of the lane. It will still be important for the defenders to stay at home against the Nuggets shooters, but allowing Lawson to run through the defense unencumbered is a bad recipe in the making.
b) Point guard leadership.
Quite possibly the worst tendency that Russell Westbrook has fallen victim to this season is when he sees the opposing point guard as a personal challenge. As noted, Lawson shredded the Thunder defense with his quickness and drives to the rim. Westbrook, instead of taking it as a personal challenge to stop Lawson, tried to counter it on the opposite end of the court. This counter-attack led to a number of ill-advised forays to the rim that led to bad shots, offensive fouls, turnovers, and crucial point swings.
It was only when Eric Maynor came into the game and brought a steadying hand that the Thunder were able to recover from Westbrook's overzealousness. True, Maynor couldn't keep up with Lawson and Raymond Felton either, but he did keep the Thunder from throwing away valuable possessions. Maynor's success on the court also allowed time for Westbrook to regain his composure and in the final quarter Westbrook was back to making huge contributions to seal the win.
c) Missing Serge Ibaka. Ibaka has made himself into a very accurate mid-range shooter. He usually gets his shots in the normal flow of the offense early in the game. However, as the game wears on, he seems to disappear. It is frustrating to see an excellent shooter get minimal chances to shoot, and it is especially damaging because that shooter is their power forward. There are so many good things that can happen when Ibaka is involved in plays like high screen and rolls; not only does it free him up for open shots, but it also pulls away a Nuggets defender from the rim. The result is more open shots, a less-clogged lane, and more opportunities for offensive rebounds.
Ibaka is the man who is best positioned to be the Thunder's #3 scorer, and if they continue to miss-use him on offense in the second halves, the Thunder are wasting a valuable asset.
In close, I look for the Nuggets to come out a lot stronger than in the previous game. The challenge for the Thunder will be to remain in the game mentally to absorb the early charge. There will be plenty of opportunities later in the game, but it will be critical for Westbrook and the gang to be patient and seize the day when those opportunities arise.
Prediction: Thunder 98, Nuggets 95