I’ll be doing a lot of scouting in the first round of the NBA playoffs, but there’s only one matchup that piques my interest. Portland v. Dallas could turn into a competitive series, depending on Marcus Camby’s health. Well, no, it might not even depend on that. But I’m not interested in that series. I don’t like the Blazers at +180 because they have one of the worst playoff coaches in the league. And I’m not interested in the Mavs, because, well, they’re the Mavs. I like to watch Mark Cuban’s face when they lose.
The matchup that has me excited is the OKC Thunder against the Denver Nuggets. So many great things to watch in this series:
- Perkins v. Nene.
- Ibaka, newly promoted, v. the savvy and mean-spirited vet, KMart.
- Durantula v. the tough-defending, elbow-chewing Wilson Chandler.
- Westbrook v. the tag team of Lawson and Felton.
- J.R. Smith all by himself.
But there is something even more fascinating to watch than the individual matchups in this series: The clash of basketball philosophies.
The OKC Thunder used to be a Nellieball team. Tweener Jeff Green at the four, spreading the floor. Serge Ibaka playing the backup 5. Run, run, run. But they’ve changed that, haven’t they? In order to transform themselves into a “team that can win in the playoffs,” they shipped Krstic and Green off to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins. And Ibaka became the full-time four. The Thunder now take the floor with a far bigger, more defensively oriented, more “traditional” lineup.
The Denver Nuggets have done the opposite. Gone are the ball-pounding, slow the pace, work the post, dominate the half-court Chauncey Billups and Carmelo Anthony. In their place are what used to be known as the New York Knicks: Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari. When you add these players to the Nuggets, this is what you get: A couple of 6-7″ power forwards. A couple of 6-9 or 10″ gunners from three. A two point-guard backcourt. One of the fastest, most offensively gifted teams in the league. Great shooting, great passing, great speed on the fast break. Nellieball.
In my mind, this series will represent much, much more than just a first round matchup between two young aspiring teams. It will also be a battle for the future soul of the Western Conference. And if Joe Lacob watches it, it might also have consequences for the future of the Golden State Warriors.
You already know who I’m rooting for, don’t you? Well, I’m also putting my hard-earned money down on them, at +190 for the series, and +5.5 in the first game. Here are a few of the reasons why I believe the Denver Nuggets will stun the Thunder and the Pundit-gentsia:
1) Russell Westbrook: In my mind, one of the most overrated players in the league. Poor floor vision, mediocre passer, terrible shooter, selfish gunner. He dominates with his defense, speed and athleticism.
There are answers to that in the playoffs. You saw what the Warriors did to Derrick Rose by trapping him at the top of the key, right? I believe Westbrook is even more susceptible to that than Rose, because he’s a far worse shooter, worse passer, and has far fewer targets on his team to pass to.
2) Wilson Chandler and Aaron Afflalo: These two guys are terrific defenders, and they just might make life hell on Kevin Durant.
Don Nelson put Monta Ellis on Durant, and forced him right. Monta tortured him, and turned him over relentlessly. Keith Smart put Dorell Wright on him, and eschewed the “gimmick” defense. Durant dropped 39 on Wright’s head, shooting 13-23.
George Karl is not Keith Smart. Durant can be bothered by superior quickness, and a great game plan.
3) The Thunder’s outside shooting: James Harden has come on in the second half of the season, but he’s really a three point specialist. Daequan Cook also comes off the bench, and he can get hot. But overall, this Thunder team really struggles for outside shooting. Three of their starters, Perkins, Ibaka and Sefolosha, can’t spread the floor at all.
That is going to make it easy for George Karl to trap both Westbrook and Durant.
4) Nene v. Kendrick Perkins: We’re going to find out in this series just how playoff ready Perkins’ repaired ACL is. The Celtics were of the opinion that it wasn’t ready. Nene is going to test it, in what promises to be a nasty, ill-tempered and physically punishing battle. And George Karl and the lightning quick Nuggets are going to try to run Perkins right off the court.
My money is on Nene. (And I hope Joe Lacob’s money is on him as well, in his impending free-agency.)
5) The great George Karl and the Nuggets depth: The Nuggets have an extraordinary number of weapons coming off the bench: Felton, J.R. Smith, Gallinari, Al Harrington, the Birdman Chris Andersen, and the rookie Gary Forbes. I am banking on the ingenious George Karl’s ability to find a combination that works in this seven game series.
Here are a few of the questions that I think Karl will ask of the Thunder:
- Can Westbrook and Durant beat double-teams?
- Can Perkins and Collison run with the Nuggets?
- Can James Harden guard Raymond Felton when the Nuggets go with two point guards?
- Can Serge Ibaka guard Wilson Chandler and Al Harrington and Danilo Gallinari out at the three point line?
- Can the Thunder get enough two’s to offset the Nuggets threes?
- Will the far less deep Thunder still be able to feel their legs after three quarters of the fastest pace in the NBA? (We know how the #1 seeded Dallas Mavericks answered this question.)
On the other hand: There are at least a few good reasons to like the Thunder in this series:
First, the Nuggets have just been slapped together. Although the Thunder also had to adjust to the subtraction of Green and the addition of Perkins, we can expect their comfort level and chemistry to be higher than the completely revamped Nuggets.
Second, there’s only one superstar in this series, and he’s on the Thunder. Historically, that has been a huge and frequently determinative factor. But I’m not sure that the Thunder can win this series even if Durant dominates.
Third, maybe I’m wrong and Russell Westbrook is a dominant point guard.
But I don’t think I’m wrong, and I don’t think Durant will dominate Chandler.
A case of Lagavulin on the Nuggets.