By Dave Bruning
It is the calm before the storm. We all know you can't have Thunder without lightning. Not everybody realizes you can have Lightning without thunder. For the sake of the lightning-fast Denver Nuggets, I hope there is a big lightning storm preparing to sweep the Oklahoma plains. It’s Denver vs. Oklahoma City as the NBA playoffs begin this weekend.
It has been a tumultuous season in Denver. The city’s loyal fans hung tough with Carmelo Anthony despite his desire to leave. Maybe we are naïve, maybe we are incredibly loyal or maybe we just weren’t sure. The Melo Drama finally ended with the trade to the New York Knicks. Whatever people think, Denver is a great sports town; sadly, I think Anthony will truly recognize this down the road when the New York media crawls up his Anthony one too many times.
When the trade with the Knicks went down, I was hopeful the Nuggets would be able to hold onto a playoff spot. Denver held the 7th playoff spot at the time of the trade. The Nuggets have impressively moved up to the 5th spot in the NBA’s Western Conference. They have exceeded my wildest optimistic hopes post-Melo. The Nuggets have morphed into an octopus, attacking teams offensively and defensively from all angles. Head coach George Karl deserves consideration for NBA coach of the year, plus an honorary degree in psychology for guiding Denver to a 32-25 record prior to the trade of Anthony.
I was hoping Denver could avoid a match up with Oklahoma City, at least in the first round. The Thunder are young, quick and very athletic. They negate many of the advantages the Nuggets would have against just about any other opponent. There is no question Kevin Durant is a supreme talent. He also draws fouls if you sneeze on him. It will be difficult for Denver to effectively defend Durant. Russell Westbrook is rapidly following in Derrick Rose’s footsteps as the best young point guard in the NBA. His size and quickness will also be difficult for Denver to defend. Finally, newly acquired Kendrick Perkins and fellow big man Serge Ibaka give the Thunder size and toughness. They are an impressive basketball team.
The Nuggets are also an impressive basketball team that is hungry for playoff success. Their revamped lineup is two-deep at every position. Let’s look at what I believe will be the keys to the Nuggets winning this series.
• Defense – Playoff basketball begins and ends with defense. The Nuggets have played tough, aggressive defense since the trade of Anthony. Aaron Afflalo and JR Smith will have their hands full guarding Westbrook. On the flip side, Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton must push the pace constantly and make Westbrook accountable defensively. Kenyon Martin and Wilson Chandler will try to contain Durant. The team that plays better defense will win this series.
• Nene – Nene must show maturity and take his game to another level. In two late season games against the Thunder, Perkins was able to get under his skin and rattle him. The big Brazilian must stay composed and use his considerable quickness and low post moves to his advantage. A big series for Nene is vital.
• Injuries – The Nuggets are banged up but are not offering any excuses. They have several days to rest and will need a healthy squad to beat the Thunder.
• An offensive go-to player – The Nuggets have been successful on offense working as a committee. I do not believe they can have sustained playoff success without a couple of their players assuming a greater role on offense. The players with the best potential to fill this role are Afflalo, Smith, Wilson Chandler and Dino Gallinari. These players are the most gifted, natural scorers on the Denver roster. It’s time to step up.
• The weight of expectations – The Thunder are facing high expectations for the first time in their short history post-Seattle. They are the darling pick of the media. There are whispers Oklahoma City can win it all. It is easier to climb the mountain than defend the mountain. The Nuggets will be a stern opening test they may not pass.
• Coaching – This area parallels the weight of expectations. Denver head coach George Karl is savvy and has more experience than most great Grandmothers. Thunder head coach Scott Brooks is a good coach but has not guided his team for very long. It will be interesting to see how Brooks adapts to the multiple lineups and adjustments Karl is sure to throw at him.
The Denver vs. Oklahoma City series will surely be a rugged, physical battle. Both teams reshaped their rosters during the regular season and seem to be better teams as a result. Playoff basketball is the ultimate test of a team’s mettle. It is very difficult to win a game 7 on the road. With that in mind, I am hedging my prediction for this series. It will either be Denver in six or Oklahoma City in seven.
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