Friday, April 15, 2011

NBA Playoff Preview, Round 1: #4 Oklahoma City Thunder-#5 Denver Nuggets

After three posts about the Eastern Conference playoffs, we'll finally move to the West and look at what should be an incredibly competitive series: the Thunder and the Nuggets.  As the four-five matchup, this series on paper should obviously be a close one, but seeing the Nuggets and the Thunder squaring off will make it that much more interesting.  In recent weeks, both teams have been called "scary" to face in the playoffs.  Both are also young, fast teams: the Thunder have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, while the Nuggets have Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, Danillo Gallinari, and Wilson Chandler.  The Nuggets have been hot of late as well, and we even analyzed their post-Carmelo success in an earlier post. The Thunder, meanwhile, have Kevin Durant, who is in his second year of "maybe becoming the best player in the league."  How it will all shake out when the depth of the Nuggets and the firepower of the Thunder collide is a really tough question to answer.  Let's see what we can do--hit the jump.

Just like in the East, we'll start our first Western Conference preview by looking at the head-to-head history between the two teams.  In a four-five matchup, where even the slightest advantage could tip the series, head-to-head history can be crucial.

12/25: Denver @ Oklahoma City--Thunder win 114-106
1/19: Oklahoma City @ Denver--Nuggets win 112-107
4/5: Oklahoma City @ Denver--Thunder win 101-94
4/8: Denver @ Oklahoma City--Thunder win 104-89

In four regular season games between these two foes, the Thunder have the 3-1 edge, including taking both contests after the Carmelo Anthony trade.  The first three games were relatively close, but the Thunder blew out the visiting Nuggets just last week.  One key in this series is that the Thunder protected their home court in both games against the Nuggets (pre- and post-Carmelo), and they also have homecourt advantage in the first round.  If the Thunder can hold down Oklahoma City Arena against the Nuggets in the postseason the same way they did in the regular season (+11.5 point differential in two wins), then it won't matter what happens in Denver.  However, there is another wrinkle to this whole preview in that the Nuggets vastly overhauled their team at the trading deadline.  They shipped out Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups (among others), while receiving Raymond Felton, Wilson Chandler (see left), Danillo Gallinari, and Timofey Mozgov.  These four players are all young and athletic, and they make the Nuggets a quicker team overall.  However, with the new roster the Nuggets are still 0-2 against the Thunder.  Some may argue that team chemistry needs time to adjust after a midseason trade, and that's true.  But the Thunder beat the Nuggets twice in the month of April, almost a month and a half after the trade.  Chandler & Co. had plenty of time to get adjusted to their new teammates (many of whom remained together from New York), but the Nuggets still lost both home and away to the Thunder.
Head-to-head: edge to Oklahoma City

Next, need to look at how each team is playing recently, and this is especially important due to all the roster changes the Nuggets have undergone this season.  As important as the entire year's body of work is, recent events will tell as more at least about Denver because their two best players from the first half of the season (Billups and Anthony) are now gone.  At first glance, this category looks like a wash: both teams lost their season finale but come in having won seven of their last 10.  Looking even further back, we see both teams coming in with what looks to be about an equal amount of momentum.  Since March 9th, the Nuggets are 13-5, with wins over the Lakers, Spurs, and Hornets.  In that same timeframe, the Thunder are 16-4, with wins over the Lakers, Heat, and Hawks.  The Thunder have a better record during the Nuggets during this stretch, but they also have worse losses.  Oklahoma City has fallen to the Raptors and Clippers, while the Nuggets' worst loss has been at Utah--and two others were at Miami and at Orlando.  So this comparison comes out about even as well, with both teams playing really solid basketball over the past five weeks.
Recent performance: Tie

Though I hoped to be able to confine our preview to the recent performance of these two teams (given the close nature of the matchup as well as the midseason trade), the aforementioned tie on that component means that we have to move on and look at each team's season-long performance as a sort of tiebreaker.  On this component, as well, the two teams line up very closely.  The Thunder have a five-game lead in the standings, but the Nuggets have a better average point differential (+4.8 to +3.8 for Oklahoma City).  That means that Denver can better blow teams out but the Thunder can better win close games--two important traits for a playoff team.  So that's a wash, and we move on the offensive and defensive efficiency.  The Thunder are 4th in the NBA offensive efficiency, but only 13th in defensive efficiency; the Nuggets lead the league in offensive efficiency, but they are 16.5th on the defensive end.  This, too, comes out to a tie, with the teams averaging 8.5th place in efficiency.  Going a step deeper, we can break down both teams on the offensive end of the court.  Since that is both teams' strength, we can safely assume that how each team performs offensively will ultimately decide the series.  The Thunder have several good young players, but their most important is arguably the best offensive player in the league: Kevin Durant (see right).  In four games against the Nuggets thisseason, Durant averaged 49% from the floor to go along with 31.5 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.  That includes a 44-point outburst (14-20 FG) in the Thunder's first victory over the Nuggets.  Durant's dominance of Denver is not limited just to this season, though.  For his career, Durant averages 25.9 points per game overall and 28.6 points per game against the Nuggets.  Oklahoma City's superstar always steps up in against the Nuggets, and there is no reason not to expect the same thing in the first round.  The Nuggets, on the other hand, do not generally perform as well offensively against the Thunder as they do against other teams.  Denver averaged 107.5 points per game this season, but only 100.3 points per game against the Thunder.  More specifically, while the pre-trade Nuggets scored 109 points per game against Oklahoma City, the post-Carmelo Nuggets could only muster 91.5 ppg versus the Thunder.  Therefore, despite some similar statistics, the Thunder appear better poised for an offensive outburst in round one.
Season performance: small edge to Oklahoma City

Last but not least, we need to examine each team's experience in the postseason to see which squad has the intangible advantage.  The Nuggets have an immediate leg up in this category due to head coach George Karl (see left).  Karl is in his 23rd year as an NBA head coach and his seventh year running Denver's high-powered offense.  In 22 prior seasons, he's been the the postseason 19 times and compiled a record of 74-93 there.  He has been to the NBA Finals once and the Western Conference Finals with three different teams.  Karl is also a leading Coach of the Year candidate this season.  The Thunder's Scott Brooks, on the other hand, is new to the postseason.  This is only his third year coaching in the NBA and only his second year in the playoffs; he has never won a postseason series.  The postseason coaching credentials are heavily in Denver's favor, which will help them late in close games.  In terms of team chemistry, that is more of a mixed bag.  Denver's nucleus was obviously torn apart during the midseason trade, but four of their rotation players played together on the Knicks beforehand.  They also have J.R. Smith in his 5th year, Kenyon Martin in his 7th year, and Nene in his 9th year in Denver.  Those guys were all in the Western Conference Finals together just two years ago.  On the other side, nobody on the Thunder has been there particularly long.  Of their five players with the best Player Efficiency Rating, Kevin Durant is the longest-tenured Thunder at 4 years.  The rest have been there anywhere from half a season to three years, but not major cog for Oklahoma City has spent much real time there before.  To make matters worse, the Thunder also took part in a midseason trade, shipping fourth-year forward Jeff Green to the Celtics for Kendrick Perkins.  Regardless of the merits of the trade, which was largely considered to have favored the Thunder, it further eroded any chemistry in place in Oklahoma City.  With George Karl on the bench and some veteran players playing big minutes for the Nuggets...
Playoff experience: large edge to Denver

If you do the math, you'll see that this series has high potential to be really close.  The Thunder have a small edge in one category and a medium-sized edge in another category.  The Nuggets have a big edge in a third category, and the fourth one is a tie. So based on all of that, it's pretty tough to say that one team has a major advantage coming in, it seems to be more of a balanced differential.  But who will win?  Well, I said earlier that Kevin Durant was critical for the Thunder, and George Karl was critical for the Nuggets.  These are two great basketball men who play for two good up-and-coming teams, but only Kevin Durant actually laces up and plays basketball in this series--while George Karl just gets to yell from the bench.  So...
Verdict: Oklahoma City over Denver in 7 games

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