Thunder/Nuggets Series Preview
Youth, talent, and athleticism collide.
by Todd Spehr
Two teams who pulled off and benefitted from mid-season trades. Denver unloaded Carmelo Anthony and with it the emotional baggage that came with the constant rumors, in return gaining four legitimate rotation players and something that resembles cohesiveness. Oklahoma City didn’t trade its best or even its second best player, but it got Kendrick Perkins—suddenly and universally hailed as a winner, a glue guy, and the type of player imperative on a successful team despite not possessing a single glittering individual statistic that best articulates his value.
Both squads are deep, both are excellent scoring teams, both are great at home, and it’s arguably the most even-matched first round series in either conference.
The Breakdown: Westbrook averaging 22 points and 8 assists and becoming an All-Star felt more like natural progression than it did a breakout, especially after his play against the Lakers in lastseason’s playoffs and in the World Championships in the summer. He is still erratic at times, and probably turns it over too much, but is electric athletically and rapidly learning to play a position that some argue is toughest to master—the point guard spot. Lawson embraced a starting role when Chauncey Billups left, and although his energy suggests he’d be best served in spurts, he was terrific and consistent as a starter, 14 and 6 assists.
The Breakdown: Perhaps the least exciting position battle, considering that these two occupy less glamorous roles but do them well. Sefolosha will guard your best offensive perimeter player and not need to be thrown the occasional offensive bone to maintain motivation. Chandler does everything well, nothing particularly great, and just seems like the right type of player to help coaches like a Karl or D’Antoni who are both at once structured and experimental. It’s hard to know how a healthy Aaron Afflalo (who played significant minutes exactly five times since March 3) would’ve affected Chandler, but he’ll get plenty of run in this series because of his versatility.
The Breakdown: Durant won his second straight scoring title but slowed after the All-Star break, scoring less and shooting just 43 percent. That’s hardly alarming, as “slowed” still represents 25 points per game and immeasurable star quality as we now become accustomed to his lofty standards; he may no longer be the league’s preeminent darling (Derrick Rose) in a league suddenly chock-full of likeable youngsters, but he has a desperation to impress in these big games that belies his reserved appearance. Gallinari is an intriguing player. Like Durant, he has great length and great range, will space the floor, and appears to have adequate offensive understanding. He’ll have good games in this series, but not with the impact or on the level of Durant.
The Breakdown: Ibaka is a fan favorite, still with an innocence about him, not yet corrupted by unreachable expectations or a bloated salary. He’s an athlete, a shot blocker, and gives the impression he’s got plenty to learn and will sufficiently apply it once he does. He benefitted immensely from Jeff Green’s departure, sliding to that big forward spot and giving the Thunder the type of balance and size the best teams have. Martin’s knees might be weary from frequent operations and years of leaping but he still provides a unique intangible: A cockiness/confidence/swagger that feeds his team emotionally. Not the player he once was, he’s still effective in stretches and will bang without fear.
The Breakdown: As what appeared to be Boston’s chemistry and hope waned in the weeks after Perkins left, Perkins became something of a poster child for all that is underrated and important within the team, not talent or obvious athleticism, but stability, reliability, a locker room presence, and a physical intimidator. He gives Oklahoma City a post defender who will defend the bigs in the West—the Thunder simply didn’t have that before. Nene is one of the best centers, and has one of the best back stories, that no one talks about. His strength is his best asset so pitting him against Perkins for the entirety of a long series will be of interest. Nene has big hands, shoots a high percentage, and always seems to give 13-15 points, and 7-9 rebounds. He’ll be right there.
Advantage: Neither. It’s a tie.
Thunder: James Harden, who this writer had frequently viewed up close last season and came to the conclusion that he perhaps wasn’t as serious as he should be, was really good after the Green trade. He embraced that third scorer role, averaging 15.8 points post All-Star after a rough January, even having a portion of the game perennially devoted to him when Durant and Westbrook got their first breather. Eric Maynor brings control from the point, Nick Collison brings a team-first spirit and sacrifice, Daeqaun Cook will hit 3s, and Nazr Mohammed always seems coveted by winning teams. The Thunder are two-deep at every position.
Nuggets: JR Smith has an innate ability to be streaky offensively, so he’s this somewhat unknown quantity, either giving scoring bursts rivaled by few (especially at home), or poor shot selection and no defense. Raymond Felton took the admirable step of going from career-year to productive reserve, often finishing games. Afflalo was averaging 12 points on nearly 50% shooting, yet sat out most of the last six weeks of the season with injury. Chris Andersen will of course provide energy, shot-blocking, and ink.
Advantage: Thunder, but barely, for nothing else but consistency and reliability. It’s a trustworthy bunch.
Prediction: Thunder in six. And yes, that clincher will be in Denver. This is a Thunder team that, while easily seductive and likeable, seems genuinely ready to win a series against a good team like Denver. Durant is of course the star and go-to guy that the Nuggets don’t have, and in the end that simply might be the difference between two really good teams. Expect a long and well-played series.
Series Schedule: Game 1 @OKC Sunday 4/17; Game 2 @OKC Wednesday 4/20; Game 3 @DEN Saturday 4/23; Game 4 @DEN Monday 4/25; Game 5 @OKC* Wednesday 4/27; Game 6 @DEN* Friday 4/29; Game 7 @OKC* Sunday 5/1 (* if necessary).
Notes: Thunder 19-7 since acquiring Perkins (13-4 with Perkins in the lineup); Nuggets 18-7 since trading Melo; Durant 34.6 points per game in three wins over Denver (including 44 on Christmas day), and 22 points on 6-18 FG in one loss; Denver was the league’s top scoring team at 107.5 points per game, the Thunder were fifth at 104.8; both teams were in the top ten in point differential—Denver seventh at 4.8, Oklahoma City ninth at 3.8; Oklahoma City has held 11 of 14 opponents under 100 points after Perkins made his team debut on 3/14.