The Denver Nuggets enter the 2011 NBA Playoffs with a very different squad then last season. Even bigger than all the player changes, is the return of their head coach. Not only has Coach Karl triumphantly returned from a tough battle with throat and neck cancer at the end of last season, since the big Melo/Billups trade.
Karl was the key factor last year in the Nuggets fading down the stretch and losing in the first round to an inferior Utah squad. With him back, the Nuggets have their confidence and swagger back… even without their All-Star small forward and clutch shooting point guard around. Karl also seems to have a new sparkle in his eyes since the trade – he is really enjoying coaching a hard-working, talented team without having to deal with the ego of a superstar.
What the Nuggets need to do to win this series:
Play as a team
None of the Nuggets individually can win this series. This new Nuggets squad that went 18-7 to close out the season after the trade won by playing together, both defensively and offensively. Offensively, the Nuggets must distribute the ball. With no superstars, and few one-on-one players other than JR Smith, the Nuggets point guards Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton need to penetrate in the lane and kick to open teammates to create high percentage shots. On defense, they must continue to play great team defense all on the interior and out at the three point line – something they’ve suddenly been doing very well at the end of the season.
The Nuggets have a ton of nagging injuries but the key one is probably Aaron Afflalo. Afflalo had become one of the go to guys in the 4th quarter on offense before going down with a hamstring injury that has refused to heal completely. Even more key though is Afflalo’s one-on-one defense – if he can’t play effectively in this series, the Nuggets have a much tougher time finding the right guys to cover Durant and Westbrook.
Don’t get caught up in playoff mental games
I’m mainly looking at Nene with this one. During the final two games between these two teams in the regular season, Nene and Kendrick Perkins went literally forehead-to-forehead several times after getting tangled up under the basket. Both are big immovable forces that man the middle for their respective teams. If either get tossed due to a scuffle, it could easily tip the scale – especially for the Thunder if its Nene that can’t keep his cool. Nene shoulders a fair amount of offensive load along with defensive responsibilities, whereas Kendrick is primarily looked at for his defense and toughness. Nene also has a tendency to lose his game once he’s lost his head, so I hope he can keep Perkins from getting under his skin.
Contain one of the Thunder superstars – Durant and Westbrook
The Nuggets are most likely doomed if both of these guys have offensive gems each game. Why? Because the Nuggets may not have the firepower to keep up, especially in crunch time when every possession becomes critical. If both Durant and Westbrook are playing well, it may be impossible to cover both and force one of the other 3 Thunder players on the court to beat us – they are simply that good.