The first rounds of your average NBA postseason typically features two types of series:
(1) the goliath vs. the overmatched, happy-to-be-there group or,
(2) the goliath vs. a team nobody really knows what to expect from
Needless to say, the first round Western Conference playoff match-up between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Denver Nuggets falls into the second category.
What the Nuggets have achieved since the whole fiasco surrounding shipping Carmelo Anthony off to the New York Knicks -- for what most assumed were just spare parts -- has been nothing short of amazing. This club (50-32) has gone 18-7 since ridding themselves of that particular distraction, and has proven itself to be better not worse as a result of it.
With eight players averaging double figures now, Denver appears to be more versatile, explosive and fluid in their offensive game play. No more standing around, watching the ball come to a halt as Anthony tries to go one-on-five for George Karl’s team. Now, everyone is a willing participant, and everyone has a role to play. Worth noting, by the way, is that the Nuggets improvements aren’t limited to the offensive end. They have become noticeably better on the defensive side of the ball since shedding Anthony, and that has impacted their newfound success just as much, if not more than their offensive capabilities.
The interesting part, though, will now be seeing if a team can truly win without a superstar, a go-to player in the NBA postseason. Traditionally, teams have been able to fly under the radar and even have a certain measure of success throughout the regular season by playing good, solid team ball. Unfortunately, when intensity is taken up a notch and the playoff atmosphere sets in, it’s difficult to truly play up to a championship level without your own star at the helm.
If Danielo Gallinari can create his own shot against the Thunder and serve as the consistent scorer that the Nuggets desperately need him to be (14 points per game since joining Denver), then this team has at least a slight shot at putting a dent in their opponents’ armor. Equally important will be the ever-erratic J.R. Smith, the team’s most gifted player and their biggest wildcard. Since the All-Star break, he’s averaged nearly 15 points per game on 45 percent shooting from both the field and the three-point line. Both of these guys need to show up big in this match-up.
And of course, there’s the Oklahoma City squad that absolutely nobody wanted to face in the first round of the playoffs.
Despite being the third youngest team in the league, with scoring champion Kevin Durant leading the way, this team has all of the pieces necessary for a championship run. With Durant's explosive ability to score at will and create a shot any time he wants to, it will be interesting to see how the Nuggets’ improved defensive efforts will hold up against him.
Equally important to the Thunder’s success will be point guard, Russell Westbrook. The former UCLA standout has quickly emerged as one of the premiere players at his position in the league, and as he showed against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round last year, he tends to shine particularly bright when the postseason rolls around.
Worth keeping an eye on is the play of OKC’s newest trade-deadline acquisition, Kendrick Perkins, and the biggest benefactor of Jeff Green being shipped off to Boston – James Harden. If Perkins can continue to guard the paint and force Denver to play a strictly perimeter-based offensive game plan, then his team will be in good position to move on to the next round. And, if Harden can continue to build on the nearly 16 points per game average he’s put together since the All-Star break, the Thunder may prove to have a little too much firepower for the Nuggets to handle.
At the end of the day, as good as Denver is – they’re facing the daunting task of taking on a championship contender in the first round. Karl’s bunch will no doubt put up a valiant effort, but ultimately, Oklahoma City will emerge from this series victorious.