The Oklahoma City Thunder are a popular pick to challenge the Lakers in the West, but the team has an amazing test in the first round. Since the All-Star break, no team but perhaps the Chicago Bulls has been better than the Denver Nuggets, who traded Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups for three starting-level players and Timofey Mozgov. The result has been incredible, as George Karl has been able to maintain Denver's top offense from the 'Melo days while seriously improving the defense, even though the team's two best defenders -- Nene and Kenyon Martin -- were incumbents.
The Thunder's defense, on the other hand, suffered this year, possibly because of the exit of assistant coach Ron Adams, who re-joined the Bulls. The trade for Kendrick Perkins figures to help; the former Celtic will have his hands full with Nene, one of the league's most electric in the paint. That's a real flashpoint in this battle: the Thunder defense against a wonderful Denver offense.
The other, of course, is whether the Nuggets can contain Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Durant is the league's best scorer over the past two years; Westbrook is among the league's elite point guards (a pretty wonderful club) and poses problems for any defender. The Thunder won a home-and-home over Denver recently largely because of KD and Westbrook; in fairness to the Nuggets, that's been the case of many of OKC's 55 wins.
Game 1 of the series tips off at 9:30 p.m. ET on TNT. Be sure to see our full Thunder vs. Nuggets series preview. For more on the Thunder, check out Welcome To Loud City. For more on the Nuggets, visit Denver Stiffs and SB Nation Denver.