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First round preview: Nuggets and Thunder

Nuggets can't stop Durant, but can they contain him?

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The Denver Nuggets have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA since trading Carmelo Anthony in February, ending the regular season with an 18-7. However, they found their Kryptonite during the last two weeks of the season and it was Northwest Division rival Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Thunder finished the season hot as well, 19-6, and beat the Nuggets in the final two meetings. Winning in Denver, 101-94, and then winning in Oklahoma City, 104-89.

For the Nuggets credit they were without Chris ‘The Birdman’ Andersen and Arron Afflalo for both games. Now Denver will be out to prove those two games are a fluke in the opening round of the players when they have the daunting task of knocking off the young and exciting Thunder.

PREVIEW: The Thunder (55-27) won the division for the first time since moving to Oklahoma City, while the Nuggets (50-32) finished with 50-plus wins for the fourth consecutive season.

The two squads each made a trade that benefited them down the stretch. The Nuggets made the most anticipated trade in NBA history by dealing Anthony and Chauncey Billups (along with Shelden Williams, Anthony Carter and Renaldo Balkman) for Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton, Timofey Mozgov and Kosta Koufos.

The Thunder added strength in the middle by trading Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson. They also added Nazr Mohammed at the trade deadline.

This opening matchup features two of the youngest squads in the League. Oklahoma City’s best players – Kevin Durant (23 years old), Russell Westbrook (22), Serge Ibaka (21) and James Harden (21) – all are under the age of 25.

The Nuggets also got much younger after trading Anthony and now have seven players under 25.

In ways the two teams are connected. Thunder coach Scott Brooks was an assistant on the Nuggets squad for three seasons under George Karl’s tutelage. Also, Westbrook and the Nuggets’ Arron Afflalo were former college teammates at UCLA. Afflalo left school as junior after Westbrook’s freshman season.

There is also no love lost between the two squads. Big men, Nene and Kendrick Perkins have gotten into it in the previous two meetings. The two received a technical foul in both meetings.

Not to be outdone, Gallinari and Durant got in a shoving match during the first meetings and had to be separated, while Felton recently called the Thunder ‘cocky’. Making for an up-and-coming rivalry and an interesting series.

SEASON SERIES

Game 1: Thunder won 114-106 in Oklahoma City

This was one of two games played before both teams made their trades in February. Kevin Durant scored a game-high 44 points and former Nugget Chauncey Billups led Denver with 30. Nene had 21 points and 12 rebounds and JR Smith received a rare start, but struggled. He scored only six points and went 1-4 from the field. James Harden had 21 points off the bench for the Thunder. At the time, Anthony missed the game because he was mourning the loss of his sister.

Game 2: Nuggets beat Thunder in Denver, 112-107

Anthony paced the team in the Nuggets only win against the Thunder this season. Anthony went for 35 points, while both Nene and Billups each chipped in with 16. Ty Lawson added 11 off the bench. Westbrook led the Thunder with 28, while Durant added 22.

Game 3: Thunder won in Denver, 101-94

The Thunder get their first win in Denver since they were the Seattle Supersonics. Durant scored 32, as he and Westbrook shot a combined 22 free throws. Oklahoma City took care of business in the fourth quarter after starting the quarter with a 12-0 run. Lawson led the Nuggets with 28, while Gallinari added 17. The bench was lacking, as Felton was the only one to score in double-figures.

Game 4: Thunder won at home, 104-89.

The Nuggets struggled offensively, shooting only barely 40 percent from the field and had 18 turnovers. Nene led the Nuggets with 18 points and nine rebounds, Gallinari and Felton added 17. Outside of Felton the rest of the bench shot only 5-17. Durant led all scorers with 28 and the Thunder bench outscored the Nuggets 39-33.

TOP PLAYERS: Nuggets
Ty Lawson, point guard, 14.4 points, 6.9 assists, .506 FG%, .424 3-pt%, .838 FT% (since trade); Arron Afflalo, shooting guard,  12.6 points, 3.7 rebounds, .498 FG%, .423 3-pt%, .847 FT% (2010-11 season); Danilo Gallinari, small forward, 14.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, .412 FG%, .37 3-pt%, .772 FT% (since trade); Nene, center, 13.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.5 steal, 1.2 block, .569 FG% (since trade); Kenyon Martin, power forward, 11.1 points, 7.1 rebounds, .521 FG% (since trade); Raymond Felton, point guard, 11.6 points, 6.5 assists, .459 3-pt % (since trade); Wilson Chandler 12.5 points, 5 rebounds, 1.1 blocks; JR Smith 14.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, .452 FG%, .455 3-pt%; Al Harrington 10.5 points, 4.5 rebounds (2010-11 season); Chris Andersen (7.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, .739 FG%)

Thunder
Kevin Durant, small forward, 27.7 points, 6.8 rebounds, .88 FT%; Russell Westbrook, guard, 21.7 points, 4.6 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 1.89 steal, .842 FT%; James Harden, shooting guard, 12.2 points, 3.1 rebounds, .436 FG%, .843 FT%; Kendrick Perkins, center, 5.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, .487 FG%; Serge Ibaka, power forward, 9.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, .543 FG%, .75 FT%.

Scott Brooks will try to beat his old boss.

KEY MATCHUP IScott Brooks versus George Karl

The student meets the teacher. Brooks spent three seasons under Karl, and took advantage of the opportunity. He has an impressive 127-104 record after three seasons as the Thunder coach and won Coach of The Year last season. He also once again helped his team improve to a 55-27 record and win the Northwest Division. However, now he has arguably his toughest task: Outcoaching George Karl.

Karl has a way of playing a mind games with opposing coaches, as well as officials, and he did that in the Thunder game at the Pepsi Center. Karl didn’t play all of his cards and didn’t run set plays. He didn’t want to give the Thunder, the more talented team, any advantage going into the playoffs.

Now it will be interesting what Karl will do in the series, he already called out the Thunder for saying stuff and he will probably first try and manipulate the officials in the opening games. Expect different players to be thrown in Durant’s direction and also different lineups to be played that Oklahoma City haven’t seen.

The Nuggets aren’t as good as the Thunder and Karl knows that so he will try to win the chess match with Brooks to give his squad somewhat an advantage.

Arron Afflalo main job is locking up Russell Westbrook.

KEY MATCHUP IIArron Afflalo vs. Russell Westbrook

The Nuggets really missed Afflalo in the final two games against Oklahoma City. Afflalo, the Nuggets best perimeter defender, is an added weapon on offense and a leader on Denver’s young team. He thrives with the job of defending opposing point guards and no doubt he has an added incentive defending his former teammate Westbrook. Westbrook wasn’t great in Affalo’s absence, averaging 17.5 points and 7 assists, but he also shot 14 free throws over the course of the two games. Afflalo is a rare defenders, he plays tough defense but rarely fouls (2.2 fouls a game) something that helps against players like Westbrook.

Westbrook may defend Afflalo as well, since Thabo Sefolosha’s size gives Lawson fits and if so expect Afflalo to make a point to attack back.

While the Nuggets want to stop Durant, but considering that it seems impossible, they may try and take Westbrook out and make Durant beat the Nuggets alone.

Smith has struggled against the Thunder this season, but that needs to change in the playoffs.

NUGGETS X-FACTORBENCH

The Nuggets go into this first round series boasting the best bench in the NBA. However, in the two meetings since the trade the Thunder’ second unit outscored Denver’s 73-56. Of course to the Nuggets credit they were out two rotation players (Afflalo and Andersen).

Felton was his usual reliable self, scoring 11 and 17 points off the bench.

But bench sparks Al Harrington and JR Smith have struggled against the Thunder this season. Smith hasn’t scored in double-figures against Oklahoma City this season. In fact, he is only 6-23 and made only 1 of 7 treys against the Thunder this season. His counterpart, Harden, has been the exact opposite. Harden has been nearly unstoppable, averaging 13 points a game and shooting nearly 50 percent. If that trend continues expect it to be a quick series in Oklahoma City’s favor.

Harrington hasn’t struggled as bad, but he also hasn’t eclipsed 10 points against the Thunder. Andersen and Afflalo being healthy may be what the Nuggets need. With Afflalo starting, Chandler can move back to the bench and give the Nuggets an additional threat in the second-unit. In his two starts against Oklahoma City, Chandler struggled shooting the ball. He made only 3-of-19 shots.

Andersen played in only game against the Thunder, but in his absence Mohammed scored 15 against the big man-less Nuggets in the final matchup.

Nick Collison has averaged 6.5 rebounds against the Nuggets this season.

THUNDER X-FACTORSerge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins

One reason why the Thunder have been successful down the stretch has been because they got bigger. They replaced Green with Perkins and now have a intimidating duo of Ibaka and Perkins in the paint.

Perkins is known for defense, but Ibaka has thrived since the trade. He averaged nearly 11 points, nine rebounds and over 3 blocks a game. Perkins stats aren’t as flattering (5.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and .9 blocks), but he gets the job done by intimidation.

Since Perkins is the better one-on-one defender it frees Ibaka up to float around and provide help defense in the post.

The two tours can makes life difficult for Nene to score and get the Brazilian frustrated. If that happens the Nuggets don’t have much of a chance to get out of the first round. For as good as Kenyon Martin is, he isn’t a great offensive player and works better cutting to the basket or attacking the offensive glass. Not being a go-to player in the post.

The Nuggets can't stop Durant, but they can slow Westbrook.

KEYS TO THE GAME (NUGGETS):

  • Be the more aggressive team.
  • Keep Durant and Westbrook off the free throw line.
  • Get the ball out of Westbrook’s hand.
  • Get Perkins in the pick and roll.
  • Make Sefolosha and Perkins offensive players and make Durant and Westbrook defensive players.
  • Don’t get stagnate on offense; move the ball. Play as a team.
  • Don’t settle for jumpers, attack the basket – get the Thunder big in foul trouble.
  • Run, Run and run.
  • Keep your composure.
  • Win the battle of the bench.

PREDICTION: Thunder in 6

Lets not get carried away, the Nuggets have been great since trading Carmelo Anthony, but they drew arguably the toughest matchup in the playoffs. A quick, young and athletic squads with two of the top scorers in the League. But even if Denver doesn’t make it out of the first round it still has a bright future with its young squad.

All photos the courtesy of Jonathan Maness

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Tags: Al Harrington Anthony Carter Arron Afflalo Birdman Carmelo Anthony Chauncey Billups Chris Andersen Danilo Gallinari Denver Nuggets George Karl J.R. Smith James Harden JR Smith Kendrick Perkins Kenyon Martin Kevin Durant Melo Nene New York Knicks Nick Collison Oklahoma City Thunder Raymond Felton Renaldo Balkman Russell Westbrook Scott Brooks Serge Ibaka Ty Lawson Wilson Chandler

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