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Thunder vs. Nuggets preview: Blinding hope

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Oh, we'll crush the Nuggets.

In this lighter stretch of their schedule, the Oklahoma City Thunder have mostly glided through games against rebuilding teams (Minnesota Timberwolves – twice) and not-so-scary playoff teams (Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks). Heading into Tuesday's game against the Denver Nuggets (16-25), the Thunder have won four in a row and six of their last seven.

It's at a time like this, with a lull in the game-to-game drama and the trade deadline rapidly approaching, that you should exhale a bit, step back and reassess the team with a macro view. The Thunder's contender status shouldn't be in any doubt at this point – they have two of the top five players in the NBA, and I'll take them over 26 teams in the NBA any day of the week.

It's the other three that leaves you worried, and you could separate each of those teams into their own tier. There's the Golden State Warriors, coming off a 132-98 blowout win against the Cleveland Cavaliers. You'll have to show me the game-plan capable of beating them in a seven-game series before I believe it's possible. Then there's the San Antonio Spurs, who get the benefit of the doubt because Gregg Popovich has a counter for everything, even Galactus, filed away in his mind. Then there are those Cavs, who might be roughly as good as the Thunder in a vacuum but play in the East, meaning they've already punched their ticket for the Finals.

The point here is that as great as the Thunder are, their competition is historically great (or in the East). You don't rule them out of going all the way in the playoffs, definitely not, but there's something separating them from the Warriors and the Spurs and the Cavs. And that's annoying, because the Thunder are already so good, but also because it's going to be hard to get better. I have an unconventional trade idea that I'll write about soon, probably, but for the most part they don't have many trade assets.

You'd love to get a player like the Nuggets' Danilo Gallinari, but given how much they seem to value him, that seems like a no-go. The other option is internal development, a prayer that one of the rookie contract guys littering the end of the roster finds something substantial to latch their games on to during the three months remaining between now and the playoffs. A game-changer.

Does it sound unlikely? Well, let the Nuggets show you what some young guns can do. Most notably, they have Emmanuel Mudiay, their seventh overall pick from last summer's draft. Personally, I'm more interested in Will Barton and their trio of Euro centers: Nikola Jokic, Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic. Heck, even Gary Harris has looked decent as a starter, and he was one of the league's worst shooters during his rookie season last year.

Nurkic will probably sit this game out, but I would keep an eye on Jokic and Lauvergne. They aren't well-regarded, but they're surprisingly versatile seven-footers. And Barton, of course, is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player this season. (Stupid award.)

The Thunder should win this game easily. The stylings of Gallo (herky-jerky) and Barton (helter-skelter) have been known to cause problems for opposing teams from time to time, but this isn't one of those rare few teams with which you have to talk yourself into predicting a Thunder win. The Nuggets have some intriguing young talent, but they aren't that good yet.

Maybe the Thunder would be better off just trading for Darrell Arthur, and hoping that the rest falls to, well, hope.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 116, Denver Nuggets 101

2015-16 NBA Season Game 43
(Won 4)

(Won 1)
January 19th, 2016
Pepsi Center, Denver, CO
8:00 PM CST
TV: Fox Sports Oklahoma, Altitude TV, NBA League Pass
Injury Report: Jameer Nelson (DTD), Jusuf Nurkic (DTD), Wilson Chandler (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Nov 1 (W, 117-93), Dec 27 (W, 122-112)
Probable Starters
Emmanuel Mudiay PG Russell Westbrook
Gary Harris SG Andre Roberson
Danilo Gallinari SF Kevin Durant
Kenneth Faried PF Serge Ibaka
Nikola Jokic C Steven Adams