The Denver Nuggets aren't quite as badly bruised as the Milwaukee Bucks, but they've definitely taken two very major hits. Danilo Gallinari, one of the team's primary scorers and the traditional foil for Kevin Durant, has been out since the start of the season with a sore knee. Piling on top of those concerns is the absence of JaVale McGee, their athletic defensive anchor in the paint.
Of course, even with those absences and the hits this team took this off-season, the Nuggets are still a formidable force. They have one of the league's deepest benches, regularly trotting out 11 separate players. Furthermore, the struggling team recently saw the return of Wilson Chandler, who's been a solid offensive rock. He's the team's second leading scorer, behind leader Ty Lawson.
Anyway, let's stop dancing around the main issue at hand. An arguably inferior Nuggets team managed to win 3 of 4 against the Thunder last year, despite Russell Westbrook's efforts to nix their mojo. In fact, the Thunder's only win against the Nuggets last season came when Denver was tired from an overtime game on the previous day. What's the deal?
The heart of the matter is that last year's Thunder team wasn't as good at keeping up with the Nuggets' lightning quick style of play. Denver's deep rotation of largely interchangeable players allowed them to sub at will when anybody got tired.
Of course, the Thunder were a fast-paced team themselves, but not in the same way. As J.A. Sherman noted last season, the Nuggets loved to push the pace on every single possession that they got, while the Thunder only push the pace on defensive possessions. Furthermore, the Thunder lacked a certain athleticism, especially when they rolled out a backcourt consisting of Kevin Martin and Derek Fisher.
How much have things changed? Well, the Nuggets are still largely using the same strategy as last season. It's slightly different in that their lineups are bigger and more traditional, but they still love a fast pace, throwing up a good amount of threes, and crashing the offensive glass. Meanwhile, the Thunder's second unit has gotten decidedly more deep and athletic, allowing them to keep up with the Nuggets fast pace.
Speaking of the offensive glass, it was a serious issue in the Thunder's matchup with the Nuggets last season. The Nuggets won the battle by a significant margin in all three of their victories against the Thunder. That issue is still particularly worrisome when you consider how bad Perk and Ibaka can be at boxing out their man. But the addition of Steven Adams should help to put some minds at ease.
In terms of matchups, the one to watch is Russell Westbrook vs. Ty Lawson. Westbrook has been a consistently tremendous asset against the Nuggets, as he loves fast-paced games and small opponents. He shot 48.8% against the team last season, and had absolutely no trouble getting to the line. On the flip side, Lawson has mostly struggled to make an impact against Westbrook, shooting poorly in three of last season's four matchups.
Interestingly enough, the Nuggets have never really had a "Thunder Killer", relying upon different scorers every single time. Really, their advantage comes from the Thunder's inability to stop their offensive attack, especially near the rim. That happened mostly because Scott Brooks wanted to go small and gave limited time to his rim protectors. Additionally, Denver usually manages to get at least one key Thunder player in foul trouble, hampering the Thunder's flexibility.
It goes without saying that this is a game that might have serious repercussions come April. The Nuggets aren't a really significant threat to take the Northwest division, but they do stand to win the season series against the Thunder. And with Minnesota's record getting scarier by the day, the Thunder's ability to master good teams with matchups advantages could be critical when it comes time to deliver the division crown.
All in all I think that Denver is still a tough outing for the Thunder, but I don't think that they hold nearly as many matchup advantages as they did last season. Thus, I'm predicting a narrow victory.
Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 104, Denver Nuggets 102.
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