Western Conference Playoff Predictions: Thunder vs. Nuggets

What me worry? Think again Nick.

It really made no sense when NBA fans stated that Oklahoma City would stomp Denver in the first round.  However, it’s really looking more and more like those fans may be onto something but not for the reasons they may assume.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 5. Denver Nuggets

Yes, Kevin Durant is a takeover player that people love to namedrop in sports debate. He has scored a lot against the Nuggets as well with 44, 22, 32 and 28-point performances as his Thunder amassed a 3-1 record against Denver this season.  However, he is just one man.

What those fans aren’t discussing is the lack of fallout felt in the Mile High City after Carmelo Anthony left for the Big Apple and how scary that really is.  If you play for Denver now, you either dwelled in Anthony’s shadow for years or were dispelled from New York for the prima dona.  Either way, you have a chip on your shoulder and you play for a coach in the same position.  George Karl has not even been mentioned as a candidate for coach of the year after taking his team 17-7 since losing the All Star (12-1 at home).

Key Matchups:

The issue with why those fans were wrong lies here: it isn’t Durant vs. the Nuggets but the Nuggets vs. themselves, or rather, their ailments.  Denver is very injured.

This team became extremely deep after sending Melo to NYC.  Raymond Felton adds depth to the backcourt, Danilo Gallinari gives them a big body that can shoot, Wilson Chandler provides them another guy down low, Al Harrington gives them size and Timofey Mozgov speaks Russian.  However, starting point guard Ty Lawson sprained his ankle in the last regular season game of the year and is day-to-day.  Arron Afflalo is being called a game-time decision after injuring his hamstring.  Gallinari is probable after injuring his ankle and Nene is probable too with an injured groin.

J.R Smith will have to rise up with Afflalo not 100 percent.  Kenyon Martin and Harrington will have to hold down the frontcourt with Nene and Gallinari injured.  Karl has options but their situation is anything but ideal.  At full health, this team could roll the Thunder but that isn’t the case now.

Next, Scott Brooks needs to take advantage of this appropriately.  The starting lineup in OKC is good but not great.  It’s convenient to have  Nick Collison and James Harden coming off the bench but Eric Maynor running point when Russell Westbrook is sitting isn’t the best.  If Denver isn’t going to have the depth they succeeded with towards the end of the season, then it’s up to Brooks to figure out how to exploit that the best way he sees fit and that’s by playing smart.

X Factors:

Harden will have to show up for this series.  He finished off the season well and is easily the best player on that OKC bench.  While he doesn’t really produce a lot in the minutes he’s given, he doesn’t turn it over and that’s key when you talk about secondary units.  During the regular season, the OKC bench was sixth in the league in lowest amount of turnovers with only four a game.

J.R. and Felton will be on that court against the garbage backup players that the Thunder have and by the way, Denver’s bench is sixth in the league in steals per game. If Harden and Maynor don’t take care of the ball, they will be looking at the back of Denver jerseys for most of this series.  The backup guards for Denver are definitely going to be important due to the fact that it will be them filling in for the injured players.

Prediction:

This will be the best first-round playoff series in the West.  OKC has the atmosphere and Denver has the altitude (Where Durant won his first game there ever this season).  The only thing for sure is that this series will go seven games.  However, the injuries in Denver really make it hard to figure out who has the overall edge.  Durant may be good but he just isn’t going to march his way to the Western Conference finals.  Denver has a lot to fight for, they have a better coach and they have better depth.  The Beef is giving it to them in seven.

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