How Denver Matches up with the Oklahoma City Thunder

The Denver Nuggets are headed for a top seed in the Western Conference. Nugg Love previews a possible matchup for the first round.

A possible first-round matchup for the Denver Nuggets is the Oklahoma City Thunder: a team many expected to be sellers at the deadline that instead have solidified themselves as a playoff team. After losing Paul George and Russell Westbrook last summer, the Thunder were expected to tank. Instead, Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Danilo Gallinari have pulled them all the way up to the 6 seed.

In all likelihood, the Nuggets first-round matchup will be either the Thunder or the Mavericks, who have been previously profiled here. With the Mavericks, the matchup is all about one player, with the Thunder it’s all about the lineups.

The 3 Point Guard Lineups

The Thunder have found success this year through their three talented point guards, Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Dennis Schroder. While those three don’t start together, they usually close games together and have found great success in doing so.

Those 3 often close games with Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams, that lineup is a +27 net rating in nearly 160 minutes together. Replace Adams with Nerlens Noel and they are still a +22 in about 75 minutes together. The three point guards allows them to consistently generate good looks leading to a lot of free throws and easy shots. Lineups including these three players have generated a free throw rate of 43.1, which grades out to the 100th percentile among all three-man lineups (per Cleaning The Glass)

The speed of this lineup really causes a lot of problems for teams and has the potential to expose the Nuggets’ ability to stop the ball on the perimeter. They are able to put 4 shooters around Adams and have 3 point guards capable of finding the open man when the help comes.

OKC Coach Billy Donovan has been hesitant to utilize this lineup much due to their lack of size, but it seems likely he’ll try to lean on it more in the playoffs. That said, this hesitation may just give the Nuggets their best strategy to beat it: size. Throwing length at this lineup may be the best way to slow it down, and Denver now has the length to put out there.

The Denver Nuggets frequently run 3 guard lineups themselves and they have the option to match the speed and playmaking OKC has. However, they also have length in guys like Grant, MPJ, and Craig that they can use to punish OKC for going small. It’s not clear how well that can work, but the Nuggets have a rotation versatile enough to throw some different looks at them.

The Chris Paul Factor

Beyond just the danger of the 3 guard lineup, the Thunder have also found success relying on the Point God himself in clutch situations. Chris Paul has been so good this year at finding his shots in every situation. It’s going to take some herculean efforts from Gary Harris and Torrey Craig to try and stop Chris Paul in the clutch.

He’s a genuine 3 level scorer and has been elite from mid-range while also shooting 36% from 3. If Chris Paul is healthy this series is probably going to come down to who hits more clutch shots, Jokic, or CP3. That’s a big if though, as Paul has a history of injuries in the playoffs that’s extensive enough to be hard to ignore.

He’s stayed healthy so far this year, but that also means he’ll end up playing more minutes than he has in years. He’ll turn 35 in May and you have to wonder how well his body can hold up with this heavy minutes load. I’d imagine OKC will be looking to find times to rest him over the remainder of their schedule.

The X Factor: Danilo Gallinari

As a long time fan of Gallinari, I can say that when he’s at his best, he’s a matchup nightmare for every team he plays. He’s 6’10 with a great shooting stroke and a solid off the dribble game. He’s great at drawing free throws and knows hot to create that contact.

He’s been more of a spot up shooter alongside so many point guards in OKC, and he’s good in that role, but his ability to show off the rest of his offensive game could be a difference in a series against the Denver Nuggets. I think the Nuggets only have one guy capable of guarding him when he’s at his best and it’s Jeremi Grant. I don’t think Millsap can stay in front of him and no one else has the combination of size and lateral quickness.

While the focus of the Nuggets scouting report is going to be focused on the two starting guards, Gallinari can be the difference-maker in this series. It wouldn’t surprise me if he won a playoff game for the Thunder, no matter who their opponent is.

The Center Battle

It’s starting to seem like Steven Adams and Nikola Jokic just love playing against each other. They are both pretty affable guys off the court and I’d imagine they get along well in their limited contact, but they also seem to love taking it at each other.

In the 6 games they’ve played over the last 2 season Adams has put up 18 points and 12 rebounds a game while Jokic has put up 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists a game. Both much better than their season averages.

This is great news as far as Jokic’s ability to take over a game in a hypothetical playoff matchup, but at the same time, he can’t let Adams put up those kinds of numbers against him. OKC has too many weapons now to allow Adams to be an offensive threat.

Unlike most teams the Nuggets might face, where the Jokic factor is how well he can perform offensively, this matchup may come down to just how difficult he can make things for Steven Adams.

Ultimately I think Jokic, Murray, and company have enough to get things done against OKC. However, playing Chris Paul and the scrappy Thunder is not something the Denver Nuggets should be looking forward to.

Next: Orchestrate or dominate: Should the Denver Nuggets try to fix their playoff seeding?
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