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Preview: Weary Thunder sight tanking Nuggets

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Will an ultra-small lineup lead to a trap game for OKC?

Brutal times in Denver.
Brutal times in Denver.
W. Bennett Berry

The Oklahoma City Thunder need just one more win (over their final five games) to clinch the three seed in the Western Conference. Tonight, when the Thunder face the Denver Nuggets, will be a prime opportunity for that.

At 32-46, the Denver Nuggets sit firmly out of the playoff picture. Any team outside of the playoffs has real incentive to tank. Over at Denver Stiffs, Zach Micash had reason to believe that some tanking went on in the Nuggets most recent loss to the Kings:

Closing thought: I almost the Nuggets were sneak tanking

Denver controlled this game for three quarters and then once the fourth started they completely fell off a cliff, missing nine shots in a row at one point. It's curious because there is absolutely zero reason for Denver to have lost this game. The Kings were on a back to back, coming from the west coast with about half their starters missing and yet somehow they were the ones with energy to close out the game.It almost appeared as though Denver was trying to lose but a better trained eye shows that they went ice cold from the floor to start the fourth while McLemore got red hot and by the time they got their offense back together is was just a wee bit too late.

A different recapper, Gordon Gross, had the same thought about the Nuggets regarding their loss to the Pelicans last week:

Malone's end-game adjustments were strange. With a team that obviously didn't feel like driving and a center (Jokic) who only played 20 minutes, it seemed like re-introducing that dynamic would help with rebounds as well as paint penetration and a PnR game that vanished in the final quarter in favor of dead-legged chucking. That never happened though and after an exhausted Arthur left the court the Nuggets last gasps of offense did as well. If it was an experiment I'm not sure what Malone was trying to discover.

When New Orleans was big he stayed small and got eaten alive on the glass, and when the Pelicans were small at the finish he remained small and let the game be decided by his uber-guard lineup with Faried at the center position. It was very much a George Karl look, and odd to see for both the bench and starting units in the final frame.

That's not to suggest that the Nuggets are simply wasting their time, though. As the strange uber-small lineup with Faried at center might indicate, the Nuggets are trying new things. Adam Mares of Denver Stiffs firmly believes that is the way to go:

The Nuggets can lose the final seven games in a way that teaches them something valuable going into the summer, free agency, and the draft. They've done a great job of re-establishing the culture and fighting to win every game. They can afford to lose the final seven games of the season while also trying some new things that should help them figure out what they have with this roster going forward. It might be ugly, but the chance to try new things with the roster paired with the benefit of gaining as much as 18% in lottery odds at a top 3 pick is very much worth it.

Why the Nuggets might be a trap game

Of course, there's actual basketball to play tonight as well. It will be Randy Foye's first return visit to Denver after being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Since arrival, Foye has mostly assumed a bench role. There are times Foye will get minutes with the starters. But for now Foye's primary job seems to be helping Kevin Durant distribute the ball with the Thunder's bench lineup.

The Thunder's bench hasn't been very effective without a point guard, though. In OKC's most recent game, on Sunday against the Rockets, the Thunder had 21 assists and 19 turnovers. Those turnover problems could be serious against the Nuggets tonight. From Thomas Zhou's recap of the last Thunder-Nuggets game on January 19th:

Kenneth Faried and Lauvergne made some buzz in the paint, thanks to Denver’s ball movement. Thunder sometimes got trapped in Nuggets’ screens and Nuggets were able to get easy baskets. Kanter offered Thunder's response. He took advantage of his mid-ranger jumpers and was able to keep the Thunder in pace at the beginning of the fourth quarter, with the dynamic duo resting on the bench.

Cameron Payne and Mudiay, while shouldering different responsibilities on their teams, shared one common attribute: they are both willing to make extra passes to find better looks. The two lottery picks reminded me of the traditional definition of guards in that sense. They showed aggressiveness but both suffered shooting slumps on with Payne missing all his nine attempts and Mudiay recording a 3-of-7 performance from the line.

If Mike Malone is experimenting with going ultra-small and had no problem getting turnovers against the Thunder last time, I shudder to think of what could happen tonight. Worse still, the Nuggets will likely have Jusuf Nurkic coming off of the bench. His big body could be enough to throw Kanter off of his game, and send the Thunder's bench into a tailspin.

New presences for Denver

There are a couple of fresh faces to get familiar with on Denver's roster. The first is JaKarr Sampson, a mid-season trade from the Philadelphia 76ers. Sampson's self-described best trait is his defensive versatility. Apparently, Sampson can guard the 1 through 4 position. However, Sampson only averages 29% from three and isn't an exceptional rebounder. Still, Sampson will provide a very formidable defense against Kevin Durant. The two haven't really matched up yet, but at 6'9", Sampson has the length to be a pest.

The other new Denver Nugget is Axel Toupane. Toupane was signed out of the D-League's Raptors affiliate on March 3rd, and given a multi-year deal on March 25th. Saturday's 14 points in 19 minutes against the Kings was a career high for Toupane. Here's Gordon Gross' assessment over at Denver Stiffs:

The 23-year-old Toupane has been a mixed bag since his signing, but has shown glimpses of the kind of offensive and defensive prowess that would make a nice bench addition for this Nuggets team going forward. He's shown some good on-ball defense and flashed a nice three-point shot but has struggled mightily to drive and finish around the rim while make expected rookie mistakes against the kind of athletes that stock the NBA game.

Toupane may spend some time guarding Durant, but will more likely have the task of covering the Thunder's three point shooters and playing help defense.

Offensively, the only player guaranteed to get a lot of shots on the Nuggets is Emmanual Mudiay. Beyond Mudiay, there's a stable of 8 other players who could go off on any given night. It just depends on how hot they are, and what advantages the defense gives them. D.J. Augustin isn't one of the players who goes off very often. But Augustin has been a nice change of pace behind Mudiay since joining the Nuggets in February. Augustin's excellent decision making was undoubtedly his best attribute. Denver has a ton of scorers, so Augustin has a variety of options to pass to. Furthermore, Augustin can be a valuable tutor for starting point guard Emmanual Mudiay. Mudiay's turnovers are his worst attribute, so it makes sense.

How tonight's game will go

It's hard to tell how motivated the Thunder are for a victory at this point. The Rockets were obviously hungrier than the Thunder, but a half-interested Thunder team just may be able to pull out a win over the Nuggets. It really just depends on how well Malone is able to exploit the Thunder's poor ball movement while also utilizing his scoring centers. Getting Steven Adams in foul trouble would also help too.

I hate to do this, but I just have a bad feeling.

Prediction: Denver Nuggets 106, Oklahoma City Thunder 99.

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

2015-16 NBA Season Game 77
(Lost 1)

(Lost 2)
April 5th, 2016
The Pepsi Center, Denver, Colorado
8:00 PM Central Daylight Time
TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Altitude Sports and Entertainment Network
Injury Report: Darell Arthur (Questionable), Danilo Gallinari (Out), Wilson Chandler (Out)
This Season's Matchups: Nov 1 (W, 117-93), Dec 27 (W, 122-112), Jan 19 (W 110-104)
Probable Starters
Russell Westbrook PG Emmanuel Mudiay
Andre Roberson SG Gary Harris
Kevin Durant SF JaKarr Sampson
Serge Ibaka PF Kenneth Faried
Steven Adams C Nikola Jokic