On the surface, regardless of what team the Thunder see in the second round, it looks like the matchup is in their favor. Okay, I know the first round isn't technically over yet, but given that the Mavs mailed in Game 3 and 60+ years of NBA history aren't on their side, I'm comfortable in thinking of the next round. Anyway, the Thunder had a 3-1 advantage on the Lakers this season, with their only loss coming in a double-overtime thriller. Similarly, the Thunder have a 2-1 advantage on the Nuggets, with the loss coming on the last game of the season. Some think the game was thrown, and that the Thunder could have easily swept the series, had it mattered.
But one team scares me much more than the other. And yes, the team that scares me isn't the one only a season removed from a championship with three of the best players in the game. The team that scares me is none other than the team we nearly swept in the first round last season. And here's why.
1. These Aren't Last Year's Nuggets. J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Chauncey Billups, Carmelo Anthony, Nene. Those are all names that played for the Nuggets last season, and they all seem a million miles away right now. As we all know, Billups and Anthony were traded to New York mid-season, and Smith and Martin signed with other teams after disastrous lockout stints in China. Nene was traded to Washington. My point is, last year was a year of transition from one set of players to the next, and George Karl didn't even have his rotations set yet. Now, this unit (more or less) has had a chance to work together and iron out the kinks. Plus, draft pick Kenneth Faried has been a rookie sensation. He's not on par with someone like Kyrie Irving, but he's definitely brought a defensive and rebounding intensity that wasn't there before. His statlines have only gotten better as the season has gone on, and he was a huge factor in Denver's win over LA last night.
2. The Thunder can't slow down the Nuggets' scoring attack. In two of their three games against the Thunder this year, the Nuggets have scored over 100. The other game, in which they scored 80, was played without Nene or McGee. They have no go-to option, but they have 7 guys who average at least 10 points per game, and all of them are capable of going off on any given night. Since the Thunder have a few defensive holes on their team and aren't always the best about sticking to the perimeter, it usually means there's going to be a few guys on the Nuggets who beat their averages.
Below: Why the Lakers Are an Easier Matchup, The Return of World Peace, The Nuggets Statistical Advantages!
3. The Lakers are a three man team, and all three of those players are in perfect positions for the Thunder's best defenders. I know that Ramon Sessions has come alive lately and that World Peace and Barnes have their moments, but for the most part, the Lakers offense runs through three guys. If you shut one of them down, you've got a chance. If you shut two of them down, the game is yours. It's easier said than done, but the Thunder's defense is perfectly suited to defend all three. Thabo Sefolosha is one of the league's best man-to-man defenders, especially against swingmen like Kobe Bryant in the post. Perkins and Ibaka don't get out in mid-range very well, but they're the league's best defensive tandem in the post. With no one but Kobe to draw pressure, they're great at defending the mostly post-only Laker tandem of Bynum and Gasol.
4. World Peace's Return. No, I don't really care about getting "revenge" on Metta because he hit James Harden with an elbow. In truth, World Peace was on fire during April, after shooting some horrendous percentages early this season. I could swear he was going to become a fourth pillar for the Lakers. But with Oklahoma City now his mortal enemy and likely to boo him on every possession, I doubt that streak would continue into his playoff performance. Plus, the Thunder themselves will want revenge against him, and I'm betting they'll play harder D.
5. The Nuggets are great at getting scoring opportunities. They're in the league's upper echelon when it comes to rebounding and stealing, and they've been the best rebounding team during the playoffs this year. They're also very good at putting the pressure on Westbrook and Durant, which is pretty much the key to winning any game against the Thunder. The Lakers will play good defense, sure, but they can't pressure effectively. They have Bynum and Gasol, but they've lost the rebounding battle against the Nuggets, which only makes me feel more confident about who I'd rather face.
All in all, I'm not saying that I automatically think the Thunder will lose against the Nuggets. I think the Thunder will will either way. But the Nuggets stand much more of a chance, and can push the game to the last few seconds, where anything can happen. Strictly from a standpoint of getting to the conference finals, I'm cheering like hell against the Nuggets. But in my heart, I'm cheering for them, because it would be one hell of a series.
What do you think? Would you rather face the Lakers or Nuggets? Does it even matter? Vote in the poll, post a comment!