Many have heralded the upcoming Thunder-Nuggets match-up the most exciting of the first round. Many have predicted a series fuelled by blood and sweat. Many have proclaimed the Nuggets the dark horse that could be left standing when all is said and done. These are all but empty declarations and hollow statements.
In a sports fans never-ending journey towards greater understanding and enlightenment one has to be careful not to slip into the bad habit that is baseless prediction and simpleton analysis.
In a preview of any kind there is the on-surface and under-the-surface. Much like the ice cube in your favourite soda, the on-surface only accounts for a mere fraction of what the ice cube is whereas the under-the-surface makes up the vast majority of the glass-dwelling iceberg.
On-surface, the Thunder are a young, athletic and hungry squad without much in the playoff experience category. They put together a very respectable 55-win season and play one of the most exciting brands of basketball in the league. Much of their offensive power manifests itself in the form of two-time NBA scoring champion, Kevin Durant, and explosive star point-guard, Russell Westbrook.
They have the much touted Kendrick Perkins on the inside and the shot-blocking “I-Blocka” who patrols the rest of the painted area. Their bench is well-rounded with good depth in almost every position while their coaching staff has progressed nicely alongside the team over the past few seasons.
For a basic discussion of the playoffs at the water cooler this would often suffice. However, the sports fan deserves better. The sports fan deserves more than just nicely positioned words and great syntax.
The sports fan is beyond the smoke-and-mirrors act. The real magic of the playoffs is in digging deeper and dissecting day-to-day adjustments, match-up advantages and coaching strategy. This is what I will strive to do over the coming weeks. Offer an in-depth and more importantly under-the-surface analysis of the Thunder’s playoff voyage.
This first round pitches two teams that were radically altered as a result of the trade deadline upheaval. It is a match-up that presents two post-trade-deadline mystery boxes if you like. Pick at your peril.
Significant acquisitions in their front-court helped the Thunder become more balanced on the defensive end while a conveyor belt full of new cargo injected the Nuggets with a fresh, new run and gun by committee ethos.
They entertained each other and us twice since these trades, with the Thunder prevailing on both occasions. But these are the playoffs and everything changes in the playoffs. So let’s delve deeper.
To start things we offer up a harrowing statistic for the Denver Nuggets. Teams that have NOT had home-court advantage in the first round, and LOST the season series to their opponents, have LOST 46 of the last 48 meetings.
Nuggets prospects just flickered. They come in as the fifth seed, without home-court advantage, having dropped the season series against the Thunder 3-1. With recent history as the judge, the Nuggets should only have a feint 4.17 percent chance of advancing beyond round one against the Thunder.
In the same vein the numbers tell an interesting tale of the two teams since the trade-deadline. We also have the benefit of having watched them play each other twice in the last 10 days. So what are the numbers and recent skirmishes really trying to tell us about the coming war?
1. Denver have no answer for Durant and Westbrook’s free-throw shooting
In the first meeting at Denver, Westbrook was limited by foul trouble. This resulted in Durant having to create much of the Thunder’s opportunities at the line. That game was a close affair with OKC pulling away late due to their late-game free-throw shooting. The same could not be said for the second affair, which saw Westbrook and Durant combine to shoot only four less free-throws than the entire Nugget team. The result? A comfortable 15 point win.
2. Thunder won the board-game
In the two games the Thunder controlled the glass 50-41 and 46-40. On both occasions the Thunder also won the battle on the offensive glass by out-rebounding their opponents 8-5 and 19-17 (although giving up 17 offensive rebounds is not the smartest thing).
This rebounding effort keeps the Thunder able to control the tempo of the game. Offensive rebounding limits the ability of the Nuggets to get out on the fast-break, where they can be lethal, while thorough defensive-glass cleaning helps reduce second-chance points.
3. Tempo, tempo, tempo
The Nuggets play at the second fastest pace in the league and in the first meeting the Thunder made the mistake of trying to run with them, with mixed results. The second game was very different. OKC slowed the game down thus limiting Nuggets fast breaks and possessions on their way to a handy win.
The Nuggets play at a breath-taking pace and have the right players to play at the break-neck speeds they do. The Thunder will need to keep things at their own tempo less they risk being run out of the playoffs in round one.
4. Defensive match-ups are in the Thunder’s favour
This is all about Kevin Durant. Although much of the league still has not figured out how to guard KD, some have understood how to bother him (see Ron Artest before Perkins screen-setting arrived). This Denver Nuggets team only has one defensive weapon to throw at KD; Aaron Afflalo. Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari did their valiant best last time out, while Afflalo was nursing himself back to health, but to no avail. Kevin Durant is too long, too athletic and has too much range for this Nuggets team.
Kendrick Perkins more than bothers Nene. As the only offensive cog the Nuggets have inside, this match-up will be crucial. This is one of the rare times you look at a match-up and say, ‘these two may really want to fight each other in the parking lot after this game’. It will be interesting to keep count of the techs amassed by these two in this series alone (Dwight Howard who? Captain-Jack who?)
Swinging back to the basketball side of things, Perkins’ ability to guard Nene one-on-one allowed OKC’s perimeter players to stay chasing Nuggets shooters off the three-point line in their previous meetings. Denver, a team that shot 38 percent from three during the season, went just 10-30 from three. In addition to this, Serge “Iblaka’s” newly liberated menace inside, alongside classic Perkins scowl, held the Nuggets out of the paint and forced them to shoot the dreaded long two. The game’s consensus pick for most inefficient and unsuccessfully made FG attempt.
5. And finally, injuries.
The Nuggets come into the series carrying a number of key injuries. Ty Lawson recently joined Afflalo and the Birdman, Chris Andersen, on the sidelines. If these players cannot remain healthy throughout the series the Nuggets will have even more difficulty against the young Thunder. Lawson and Afflalo expect to be ready to face the Thunder on Sunday night but Afflalo has been especially prone to suffering setbacks recently.
Be wary of the strictly on-surface
With this said, the Thunder and Nuggets will surely serve up an intense and entertaining series but be wary. In the future, don’t buy into the hyperbole out there without the sufficient under-the-surface understanding. This has been an NBA playoff preview public service announcement. More to come soon.