The No. 4 seed Oklahoma City Thunder and the No. 5 seed Denver Nuggets combined for a 36-14 record after the NBA Trade Deadline, and many of those losses came in meaningless games or with key players injured. Now, the two hottest teams in the Western Conference will face each other in a classic 2011 NBA Playoffs first-round matchup. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and company will be looking for their first playoff series win, while George Karl's Nuggets will look to try to keep proving everyone wrong and succeed despite trading away Carmelo Anthony. Both teams are fast-paced and athletic, and both are at the top of their game. This one will be fun.
Mild. The Nuggets would have a chance to win against anyone they played, but the Thunder are a particularly bad matchup because of their speed and length. The two teams played twice in the final two weeks of the season, and the Thunder won both times, including a game where they ran the Nuggets off their home floor down the stretch. The Nuggets could run most teams out of the gym, but there's no outrunning these Thunder.
That said, Denver is still easily the best overall team among the eight underdogs, so an upset is always possible. I'm just not sure Oklahoma City is the team to yield it.
Russell Westbrook has had a season-long anointment this year, but with the games expected to be fast-paced, look for his skills in the open floor to truly shine. We all know how good he is, but maybe casual NBA fans will finally figure it out in this series. Serge Ibaka and James Harden are two other lesser-known Thunder players that thrive in this kind of game. Both have made significant improvements in the second half of the season.
For the Nuggets, keep an eye on Ty Lawson, who is fully capable of going back and forth with Westbrook in fast break situations. Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and/or Arron Afflalo can make bigger names for themselves if they can shut down Kevin Durant.
HINTS FOR THE FUTURE
Crunch time will tell a lot about both of these teams. Westbrook and Durant haven't always had the best chemistry at the end of games, especially when trying to set each other up. If they continue to struggle, it may cost them in close games against better teams down the line. The Nuggets lost their crunch-time meal ticket when they traded Anthony, and now must rely on a committee approach. That doesn't often work, especially in the playoffs. If it fails again, what do they do to try to solve that problem?
MAINSTREAM MEME ALERT
It'll only take one game for everyone to fall in love with both of these teams and spout cliches about how they play the game "the way it was meant to be played." This will inevitably cause bloggers once excited about this series to be contrarian and try to promote every other series instead.
(Note: I hope this doesn't happen).
Oklahoma City in five. It'll be five tough games, and Game 4 in Denver in particular could be a classic, but the Thunder are just a brutal matchup for the Nuggets in every way imaginable.