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Preview: Weary Thunder get opportunity at ravaged Nuggets

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Gallinari, Barton, Harris, and Hernangomez are all out.

W. Bennett Berry

Tonight, the Oklahoma City Thunder, wallowing in mediocrity at 8-8, face the even more mediocre Denver Nuggets, who are 6-9.

I never thought I’d be quoting local sports talk radio personality Jim Traber on this blog, but here I am. I remember Mr. Traber saying this on air when I was a kid. It’s a simple thought, but it’s very true. When the team is down, as fans, we always look at recent losses. This recent road trip has been a complete disaster for the Thunder, as they have dropped games to the Lakers and Kings. Now, OKC travels to the mile high city of Denver. And our spirits couldn’t be lower. But I still feel that the Thunder have the potential to win tonight. After all, this is the same Thunder team that went 1-1 with the Clippers, nearly 2-0, and beat the Rockets. OKC is still built to win.

Altitude Problems

Road games in Denver are always trap games. The altitude in Denver ranges from roughly 5,100 feet to 5,700 feet.

From Wikipedia, here’s a description of the effects of Mild Altitude Sickness:

Put simply, Denver is on the very low end of the altitude sickness spectrum. I can speak from personal experience here. I have spent week vacations in Denver (5100-5700 feet), and Breckenridge (9600 feet). My normal environment is Oklahoma City (1201 feet). In Denver, there is a definite shortness of air that you’ll notice. If you exert yourself, it’s more likely that you’ll get tired easier, at least mentally. By contrast, in Breckenridge, I was literally gulping down water constantly. I always felt tired, and napped mid-day. It took time to adjust to the environment.

But, in the NBA, we’re referring to well-conditioned athletes, exerting themselves to the maximum. So it’s probable that players on opposing teams won’t have the stamina that the Nuggets do. The Nuggets have been exploiting this advantage for years. At time of writing, there are 24 previous versions of the Denver Nuggets that have a faster pace than ANY team in the NBA today. However, the most recent team to do that was the 1990-1991 Denver Nuggets. Thus, the Nuggets are more traditionally focused nowadays. But I’m still puzzled as to why the Nuggets still don’t attempt to use the best advantage they have.

Of course, there are skeptics in this debate. Stan Van Gundy, for example:

Of course, in the same article, Van Gundy’s players openly admitted that Denver was more difficult to play in.

This bodes particularly badly for the Thunder. OKC plays the league’s sixth-fastest pace. And the Thunder’s rotation has gotten thinner and thinner as the season has gone on. During these past two road trip games, the Thunder used an eight-man rotation.

How to Defeat the Nuggets

This year’s Nuggets appear to be living up to the hype of being a mediocre team, full of good-but-not-great players. The Nuggets haven’t really had a singular star since the days of Carmelo Anthony. Now, the Nuggets rely on a team of relatively adept scorers. If the Nuggets didn’t have to deal with injuries, they might be a playoff team. But injuries seem to haunt the Nuggets every year. This year, Will Barton has missed 9 games. Wilson Chandler has missed 2 games. And Danilo Gallinari has missed a game. The good news for Denver is that they are young and have prospects. Clearly, Denver is looking ahead.

The Nugget offense is particularly good at offensive rebounding (4th in the NBA) and getting to the line (6th in the NBA). But the Nuggets really struggle when it comes to turnovers (24th in the NBA). Also, despite possessing an array of good shooters, the Nuggets are 25th when it comes to effective field goal percentage. With Donovan’s shortened rotation, OKC will likely place an emphasis on rebounding and defending without fouling.

Defense is the area where the Nuggets tend to struggle more. Predictably, the Nuggets’ primary defensive advantage is their defensive rebounding, which ranks second in the NBA. But beyond that, the Nuggets are mediocre. 14th when it comes to sending teams to the line, 14th when it comes to defending shots. None of that is what the Thunder should focus on, though. The Nuggets are dead last in the NBA when it comes to forcing turnovers. This will play right into the Thunder’s hands. OKC, at 16.3 turnovers per game, has the league’s 3rd highest turnover rate.

So all of those daring cross-court passes you’ve been seeing? The Nuggets won’t stop them. The Nuggets are likely just going to crowd the paint and try to get all the rebounds. So it’s more important than ever for OKC to make those risky passes to get the ball in good places for quality shots. This is a game where I’d rather see those open Oladipo and Lauvergne threes than Russ popping up for shots constantly.

But I do not blame Russ for anything at this point, to be clear. Yes, Westbrook’s shooting percentage is down. Yes, he can act a bit standoffish at times. But it’s Russ against the world at this point, and his teammates are failing him. Tonight will be an excellent chance to rebound though, as the Nuggets will be missing several key players.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 121, Denver Nuggets 113.

What do you think of tonight’s game? Drop a comment and let us know!


Injuries: Danilo Gallinari (Out), Will Barton (Out), Juan Hernangomez (Out), Gary Harris (Out), Mike Miller (Doubtful), Cameron Payne (Out)

Time: 8 PM CST

Place: The Pepsi Center, Denver, Colorado