NBA Playoffs, Baby!: Thunder v. Nuggets Preview

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.

18 Responses to NBA Playoffs, Baby!: Thunder v. Nuggets Preview

  1. I like your take here, feltbot. On the GSoM website I picked Denver to win the Championship. I thought I was nuts, but here you are making me breathe easier. I guess my reasoning involves their depth. Even though benches traditionally shorten, I am reminded of the ’74 Warriors who rotated 10 guys and blew their way right to the Championship. I see the same depth in Denver which will allow them to run those short rotations on the other team to exhaustion.

    I have a little different take on Portland, though. They will be interesting to follow; probably win against Dallas in 7. I think the adjustment McMillan made when Roy went down showed that their crappy style of play was because of Roy, not the coach. Also, because of the late addition of Gerald Wallace (for a bucket of fried chicken), they are way better than their record.

  2. geraldmcgrew

    Good stuff, FB. What significance, in your eyes, have the late-season wins of Thunder over Nuggs?

  3. Not much. Although I would have preferred the Nuggets to have won both games, of course. But then again, if they had, I wouldn’t be getting +190.

    Both Afflalo and Andersen were held out of those games, and they are both very important pieces for the Nuggets.

    And George Karl is way too smart to tip his hand in the playoff matchup he absolutely wanted.

  4. OT: I realize this is a basketball blog but this is a story that hits hard, and especially so here in the Bay Area. This family has my prayers, and hopefully some of yours as well.

  5. My father-in-law is a soft-core Dodgers fan. He was at their Opening Day game and called us to tell us how scary things were there. Way too many fans drunk and belligerent. What a tragic thing. They need to cut down on beer sales at the ballparks. It’s a travesty the way things are now. You see all those drunk fans driving out of the parking lots after baseball and football games–it’s frightening when you think about it.

    Felt, a Denver team that plays Nene and KMart heavy minutes is playing Nellieball? I wish we had seen that kind of Nellieball here; I’d have been on the bandwagon big time.

  6. OT — Nellie never had a center like Nene, it’s true. But KMart is about the same size as Matt Barnes. And who backs him up? Harrington/Chandler/Gallinari. Add that to the two point guard backcourt and the style of play, and I think there’s plenty of Nellieball to watch. This is a team that has to get up and down to win.

    By the way, I was very distressed to learn that Aaron Afflalo is out. He is an essential cog in Denver’s success. Hopefully, he’ll be able to get on the floor later in the series.

  7. No Afflalo, no win. Westbrook is tremendous. Want to reconsider you comments on Westbrook? Nene v. Perkins debate settled. Nene far supeior.

  8. I like the analysis, but one factor was omitted: the incompetence and/or bias of NBA refs — favor the home team, favor the big-market team, favor the superstar, swallow the whistle at crunch time, or just plain miss calls. The non-call of obvious basket interference with 1:05 left in Game 1 probably cost Denver the win. The NBA admitted today that their refs blew it, but it doesn’t change the outcome. I’m pulling for the Nuggets to overcome it, but I wouldn’t put money on what the refs are thinking.

  9. Lacob has stated that he’s looking for a younger coach who ostensibly would grow with the team and be the head coach for many many years to come. That mindset would seemingly rule out Adelman.

    Excluding Adelman from consideration wouldn’t ruin my day, to be honest. I became a non-Adelman fan the moment he chose Sprewell over Timmy H. as “his man” in his early days with the Warriors. Frankly, I’m one who believes Adelman has always been overrated. What would Nelli have done with the teams in Portland, Sacramento and Houston that Adelman coached? My point is that Adelman’s teams don’t under or overachieve, they just produce what everyone expects, or should expect, given the talent. Accordingly, yes, he would be an improvement over Smart, but if I’m Lacob I’m not looking for someone with a resume of uninspired predictability, and 65 yrs old to boot.

  10. geraldmcgrew

    Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman on George Karl:

    “…Karl didn’t become an iconoclast from Dean Smith. Don Nelson is more like it. Nelson…befriended Karl decades ago, and now Karl has assumed the mantle of the league’s most unorthodox coach.”

  11. Great link GM, thanks.

  12. “For Don Nelson, life is good at his Maui home”…….

  13. Complete list of available free agent big men:

    Anyone want to lay a price that the Warriors wind up with Yao Ming?

  14. No, I think we’ll get the Pillsbury Doughboy (read the piece).