The NBA post season is upon us and while there should be several entertaining first round series, the best of the bunch will be the last of the eight series to tip-off on Sunday night.
The fifth seed in the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets, will travel to Oklahoma City to take on the fourth seeded Thunder in a battle of the top two teams from the Northwest division.
You’d the think these teams would be familiar with one and other because they play in the same division. However, of the four games between the Nuggets and Thunder in the regular season, only two of those games came in the post Carmelo Anthony era. So throw any thoughts of a strategic, chess match type of series out the window because no one really knows this new Denver team very well.
One thing we do know about the Nuggets is that they still love to push the pace and out score their opponents. The big difference since their massive trade involving three teams and ten players is their depth. They’re not just relying on 'Melo and Chauncey Billups anymore. They have more weapons to beat you with at the offensive end.
As for the Thunder, well they are just plain dangerous. With the players like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it’s going to be hard for Denver to stop the Thunder from scoring. This brings me to my first of seven reasons why this will be easily the most exciting series to watch in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.
The Nuggets and Thunder will combine for more points than any other first round series. This much I guarantee.
Denver is at their best when they’re running the fast break and pushing the tempo of the game. They finished first in the entire NBA in scoring during the regular season, averaging 107.5 points per game. Combine that with the Nuggets 21st ranked defense and it’s pretty safe to say that head coach George Karl won’t be instructing his players to slow the pace down and try to grind out any victories this post season.
Oklahoma City is not much different than Denver in terms of their style of play. They generally welcome an up tempo game as well. The Thunder finished fifth in league scoring, averaging 104.8 points per game, and boast one of the games fastest point guards in Russell Westbrook. If that’s not a recipe for a team that likes to fast break, I’m not sure what is.
However, Oklahoma City may want to slow the pace of the game down just a bit. They’re a slightly better defensive team than Denver, especially after they traded for Kendrick Perkins midway through the season, and they’ve proven they can win the occasionally low scoring game. That doesn’t mean it’s their specialty, but it does show that they’re just a little more comfortable than the Nuggets are in possibly slowing the game down.
Don’t expect this to impact the excitement level and the amount of points put up by either team though. When two teams who were in the top five in offense and the bottom half of the league in defense play each other, common sense tells you that just about every game of the series will be a barn burner.
Kevin Durant might not be in the top tier of superstars with Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, and Derek Rose but he’s pretty close. In fact, he’s probably at or near the top of the next class of NBA stars. After all, he was the top scorer in the entire league during the regular season and has brought the Thunder from near the bottom of the standings to a title contender in just four years.
Durant is one of those athletes who can sell tickets by himself. He’s a human highlight reel. He’s long, fast, versatile, and can beat you almost any way he wants. For the past two seasons, opposing teams have focused their entire defensive game plan around stopping Durant. But based on the numbers that Durant has put up over those two seasons, it hasn’t worked.
When KD won the scoring title last season, he became the youngest player ever to do so. It’s almost unfair that he doesn’t get the same media attention that Lebron, Kobe, Wade, and Derek Rose get. In fact, after beating out all the other all-stars to win the NBA scoring title two years in a row, maybe Durant does belong in the same class of superstardom as those players.
Every superstar needs sidekick. Jordan had Pippen, Kobe has Gasol, and Kevin Durant has Russell Westbrook.
Much like Durant, Westbrook is one of those players who flies under the radar considering what he’s capable of. He’s second in the league in scoring among point guards behind only Derek Rose, the consensus league MVP, and he actually averaged more assists than Rose.
Now don’t think for a moment that I’m trying to make the argument that Westbrook is better than Rose. But at the very least, Westbrook deserves to mentioned in the same breath as the other top point guards in the league like Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, and Rajon Rondo.
Westbrook is capable of playing at an incredibly fast pace while staying in control of his body. He is the man who will be running the Thunder’s fast break in this series and with the way the Nuggets play, there should be lots of opportunities for Westbrook to get out in the open court and show off his incredible leaping ability.
I’m predicting a lot of Russell Westbrook highlight-reel dunks in this series, which is why he is one of my seven reasons to watch this series.
On the Nuggets side of the ball, there isn’t one player who stands out as a true superstar. But why watch one player when you can marvel at the offensive abilities of the entire team.
Denver doesn’t need a superstar because they have the best scoring depth in the entire league. Eight players averaged double-digit point totals during the regular season for the Nuggets and that doesn’t even include Kenyon Martin, their starting power forward.
However, for what ever reason, multi-talented shooting guard J.R. Smith has struggled against the Thunder recently. As deep as the Nuggets are, Smith will have to step his game up if they want to keep pace with the Thunder in this series.
But overall, the Nuggets team offense is second to none. They can hurt you at all five positions and are just as comfortable shooting the three pointer as they are taking the ball to rim.
If it wasn’t enough that both teams play with a ton of energy and love to play an exciting brand of basketball, the fans of the Thunder and Nuggets also bring a lot of energy to their respective buildings.
In Oklahoma City, it’s the sea of blue and the white towels. The Thunder seemed to feed off the incredible energy of their fans last year during the playoffs and this year will be no different.
In Denver, the Nuggets feed off of the loud noise and the intimidation factor of their fans that are happy to remind opposing players of the high elevation they’re playing at. Many teams seem to have trouble playing in Denver because of this. However, the Nuggets relish it and often use the noise of their fans to pump themselves up into playing at an even higher tempo than they normally play at.
In addition to the offensive highlights and fireworks these teams are capable of producing, there’s also a very realistic chance of some physical fireworks in this series.
In the regular season, Denver had the most disqualifications of any NBA team and Oklahoma City wasn’t far behind them with the third most in the league. Both teams have tough players who like talking trash and don’t like being pushed around.
In fact, the entire reason Oklahoma City traded to acquire Kendrick Perkins was to get tougher. Perkins isn’t afraid to play physical and commit a hard foul if necessary. He’s plays tough, he talks tough, and he seems to relish physical confrontation.
Perkins has already picked up five technical fouls in his brief time with the Thunder. One of those technicals was for a near fight that broke out under the basket with the Nuggets starting center, Nene, during a late season game on April 5th. Expect these two players to be matched up against each other for much of this series and expect many more physical battles under the basket between the two.
If Perkins isn’t on the court, Serge Ibaka is another member of the Thunder who likes to play a physical brand of basketball and never backs down from an altercation.
On the Denver side of the ball, aside from Nene, there’s Kenyon Martin. The brash, loud-mouthed Martin has always played with an edge. Unfortunately, there’s no stat for how many times a player swears and beats his chest during a game. If there was, Martin would be at or near the top of that list. Put him and either Perkins or Ibaka on the same court in opposite jerseys during a playoff game and you’re asking for trouble.
Much like the Nuggets depth in scoring, they also have depth in this area too. The tattoo-covered Chris Andersen is another Nugget who plays with an edge and you can bet he’ll be jacked up for some physical play in this series as well.
Don’t expect any all out brawls in this series like we had with the Heat and the Knicks in the 1990’s. But don’t be surprised when you see Perkins and Martin getting in the faces of each other below the basket, along with possibly a few other members of both teams.
The seventh and final reason to watch this series is also the reason why I chose seven reasons in total. This series will be the best of the bunch because it’s going to take all seven games to decide a winner.
Denver and Oklahoma City were separated by only five games in the regular season standings and both teams are very evenly matched statistically. Another reason why I believe this series will go the distance is the home records of both teams.
Denver went 33-8 during the regular season on their home court and Oklahoma City went 30-11. In fact, don’t be surprised if this is one of those series where the home team wins every game, which brings me to my prediction.
Oklahoma City will take this series in seven games because they have the home court advantage, they’re a little better defensively, and because they have the best player on either team in Kevin Durant.
But even if I’m wrong, the Thunder and the Nuggets are still going to be fun to watch so enjoy the ride while it lasts!