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OKC Thunder vs Denver Nuggets: Three Lingering Thoughts

It is a quick turnaround of emotions tonight, because as they say, we have unfinished business with the Clippers. No offense to Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, and the gang, I really, really don't want to see the Thunder lose to a team owned by Donald Sterling.  So attention needs to be there for this evening to avoid a repeat performance from last Saturday.

Until we get there tonight, here are three random musings I've been pondering today while thinking about whether Eric Maynor should get more minutes. I mean...Why Not???

1. The Russell Westbrook enigma

We should probably get this topic out of the way first. In the last few games, Westbrook has played very poorly. It is one thing for someone like Kevin Durant or Serge Ibaka to not be playing his normal level of game, but it is quite another when it is your point guard. The PG is the man who is responsible for making sure everything works on the court; if he's playing badly, everybody else suffers with him. During the middle two quarters of play, Westbrook was quickly drawing the Thunder down into his personal quicksand. He was trying to match his play to Ty Lawson, and as a result took bad shots, committed bad turnovers, and his team's offense fell apart.

We can all postulate on what the problem truly is. Zach Lowe thinks that Westbrook is playing like a LeBron James type, a comparison that I've made before on this site. I think it's appropriate given the freakish athletic talent they both possess. Royce Young would have been content leaving backup PG Eric Maynor in for the remaining four minutes of the game, as would have I. Darnell Mayberry wonders if there's something more fundamentally wrong.

Here is what I know. If Brooks had not pulled Westbrook when he did and left Maynor in as long as he did, the Thunder would have lost. Westbrook seems to run hot or cold these days. If he is running hot, then the Thunder can beat anybody in the league because nobody can stay in front of him. If he's running cold, they can lose to anybody. There has to be a better happy medium.

In a way, Westbrook kind of reminds me of a young Barry Sanders. He's stronger and quicker and has more explosiveness than most, but too often Westbrook applies it in the wrong way. The end result is either an amazing display of skill and athleticism or a tackle for a loss. 

 Westbrook is going to see Ty Lawson and Ray Felton a lot more in the next two weeks, and he has to figure out how to get his emotions in check so he doesn't kill his team's chances.

2. Guards vs Front Line.

The playoffs are all about mismatches and game to game adjustments. Last night, we got our first dose of where each team has a comparative advantage:

a. Nuggets - Their two point guards Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton are super quick and very difficult to guard. This is not a new piece of information. Lawson scored at will any time there was space in transition or half-court. In the final minute, he drove coast-to-coast for layups in about four seconds each time. Westbrook is as fast as Lawson, but he's like a defensive back in this situation - the offensive player is always going to have the advantage of knowing where he's going to go. Maynor? No chance. Thabo Sefolosha? I don't think so.

Felton is a little bit different in that he's a better ball distributor and outside shooter, and he proved his mettle by hitting some big shots in the 4th quarter. He wants to be that big game shooter, kind of like the guy who replaced him in NY (Chauncy Billups).  

If the Thunder allow each of these guys to do what they want to do, those two guards are going to continue to score at a high pace and the Thunder bigs are going to get in foul trouble trying to protect the rim. The Thunder need to make them do what they don't want to do - make Lawson shoot from the outside, and take the ball out of Felton's hands.

b. Thunder - Their front line is going to continue to create mis-matches. It is going to be Kendrick Perkins' job to neutralize Nene, who physically is Perkins' equal, better offensively, but not quite as good defensively or on the boards. Perkins did his job well last night, and as a result the Nuggets had zero inside game to look to. The Nuggets are naturally a guard and small forward oriented team that can unleash their speed and athleticism and bury teams under offensive pressure. However, they do need Nene to occupy the post to keep defenses honest, and Perkins mostly took Nene out of the equation. On the other side of the floor, Serge Ibaka played Kenyon Martin well when the two were matched up against each other. Martin's offense mostly came through outside jump shots. I think the Thunder will live with those, since it pulls Martin away from the rim and keeps him off the offensive boards. On these two bases, the Thunder are neutralizing an important part of the Nuggets attack. 

So the front line is a net neutral, right?

Oh wait, there's still that Kevin Durant guy...

3. "We'll give you that one." 

I think we've seen the Thunder strategy emerge on how to deal with players who are "in the zone." In short, the Thunder let them have it. That's what the Thunder did against Lawson, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Blake Griffin. They would not double team those guys, but rather let them continue on their course and then the Thunder worked hard to eliminate everyone else. For the most part the strategy has worked, because seldom have we seen more than one player from the opposition light up the Thunder. Who are the Nugget candidates?

  1. Ty Lawson (obviously)
  2. J.R. Smith
  3. Danilo Gallinari
I could (and probably am) mistaken, but these are the three guys who can really assert themselves offensively if they find their rhythm. If this is indeed the Thunder strategy, then if any one of those guys above get hot, I would expect the Thunder to recognize and let it happen but immediately tighten down on everything else.

If more than one guy gets hot?

Well, let's just hope Mr. Westbrook gets himself straightened out in time.