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Thunder vs. Nuggets: Are Cracks Starting to Show? (2011-2012 Game 43 Preview)

Records: Denver Nuggets (24-19) at Oklahoma City Thunder (32-10)

Time: 7:00 PM Central Standard Time

Place: The Pepsi Center, Denver, Colorado

TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Altitude Sports and Entertainment

Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1), KMEZ 106.7 FM

Enemy Blog(s): Denver Stiffs, Roundball Mining Company

Previous Meetings: Feb 19th (Thunder Lead Season Series 1-0)

Back in February, it took career games from Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Serge Ibaka in order to defeat the Nuggets.

What makes us think we'll be able to do that again, after some underwhelming performances against middling teams in the past couple of weeks?

Well, one thing we do have going for us is the fact that the Nuggets have absolutely no answer for Kevin Durant. Okay, few teams in the league do, but the Nuggets are probably the weakest at guarding the Small Forward position. In our last matchup, Corey Brewer would basically allow Durant to get to whatever spot on the floor he wanted, and didn't have the elevation to stop him. Meanwhile, Al Harrington wasn't nearly quick enough to deal with Durant on any part of the floor, and often found himself 2 feet from where he needed to be in order to effectively guard Durant's shot. Of course, the Nuggets will have Danilo Gallinari back, but you're just going from below average to average, and his main asset is that he'll lure Durant into a couple of turnovers. Regardless, Durant will still have a whopping amount of points tonight.

I'll also say that the Thunder got next to no production from everybody but Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka during the most recent game, and I'd expect the stats to even out somewhat tonight, especially with how tired Durant looked against the Rockets. Harden can usually manage to break double figures, and I'd expect at least one big man to put up more than 5.

Plus, Ibaka is set to be a huge factor tonight. His scoring has been significantly more consistent over the past month than it has been in his entire career, and he was a big part of our playoff series win against the Nuggets.

Below: Potential Problems the Thunder Face, Prediction!

But there are a few serious challenges the Thunder face tonight, the most notable of them being defense. The Nuggets are the best team in the league at getting to the line, meaning that they love to drive the ball. So letting guys slip through the center of the lane like two nights ago against the Rockets just isn't going to fly. On top of that, the Nuggets are the league's best team at distributing the ball, meaning that they're really good at finding holes in your defense. Since the Thunder are a team that loves to go for steals and try doubling up with help defense, it gives them some pretty serious open shots.

Secondly, the Thunder are going to have to take care of the ball tonight. The Nuggets are fourth in the league when it comes to steals, and they do an excellent job of taking advantage of chaos with quick hands. I'm not so much concerned about Durant or Westbrook losing the ball on a foolish drive. Rather, I'm concerned about the Thunder trying too hard to push the ball up the floor or pass to an open man on the other wing, leading to a wasted possession. A successful play can ignite the offense, but when the Thunder needlessly waste a possession trying to do something foolish, it only gives the Nuggets confidence.

All in all, tonight's game against the Nuggets and last night's game against the Rockets represent challenges against teams that don't necessarily have the Thunder's number. Rather, they are teams that are definitely more than adept at exploiting the Thunder's flaws, and can seriously challenge them for wins on a regular basis. Whether the Thunder can overcome these challenges now will represent how susceptible they might be to an upset come playoff time. And from my perspective, the Thunder haven't done enough to show that they're ready for this challenge just yet.

Prediction: Nuggets 105, Thunder 101