After Oklahoma City’s impressive victory over the Lakers on Sunday night, the crowded playoff picture in the West just got even more interesting. The Nuggets have a two game lead for the fifth seed and assuming they hold on against Portland’s tiebreaker it is now conceivable they could face the Lakers in addition to Dallas and Oklahoma City in the first round of the playoffs.
The Thunder own a division champion tiebreaker which makes them a contender for the third or second seed if Los Angeles extends their five-game skid by losing out. For a moment the Nuggets seemed destined to match up with either Dallas or OKC in the first round and with tonight’s action the Lakers are thrown into the mix as tiebreakers could play a pivotal role in the final seeding.
In simpler terms here is what you need to know about the playoff picture going forward – the Nuggets have at least tied for the fifth seed. They need to lose out in addition to Portland winning their final two games in order for the Blazers to pull even and take the fifth seed with a tiebreaker. The Lakers and Dallas are tied for the second seed with Los Angeles currently on top by a tiebreaker. Meanwhile the Thunder are only one game back and they own a tiebreaker over Dallas as a division winner.
In a three way tie the Lakers would be the second seed as they own tiebreakers over both Dallas and OKC. In order for them to fall to fourth and potentially face Denver in the first round both Dallas and OKC would have to win at least one more game than LA. All three teams have two games remaining so the field is truly wide open and it is worth keeping a close eye on. If I had to make my best guess OKC and then Dallas are still the strongest possibilities but nothing would surprise me in the rest of the race going forward.
After consulting with a few different groups of fans I find that most greatly prefer a matchup against Dallas which is no surprise when you consider recent history. Denver won three out of four against the Mavericks this season even though twice it came down to buzzer beating shots for the game-winner.
I still can’t help but think this is a matchup in which the fans are too quick to dismiss the drastic changes the trade has brought to this team. I can’t say with certainty this matchup belongs to Denver as they have a completely different squad which has only faced the Mavericks once. It is hard to put much stock into the recent Dallas game as key players were missing from both squads and a rare magnificent road effort from JR Smith actually delivered that win.
There is no team in the West currently more overlooked than the Mavericks. While the Nuggets and Thunder have gotten a ton of attention as some of the hottest teams since the break, Dallas has quietly maintained their winning ways all season. Yes, I understand they are older but with age comes experience and the Mavericks are packing more playoff-hardened veterans than either of the younger Thunder and Nuggets squads.
In all honesty picking between the Thunder and Mavericks is almost too close to call either way. Both are fantastic teams with better win/loss records than the Nuggets. Oklahoma City has the slightly more efficient offense but a wholly pedestrian defense. Dallas is top ten in points allowed and they play at a much slower pace than the Nuggets are used to. This is also a Mavericks offense that can be much more dangerous and explosive than it seems. Dallas is second in the league in assist rate and in True Shooting Percentage they trail only the Nuggets, Heat, and San Antonio for top marks in the league.
I guess what it comes down to is balance. The Thunder’s two man attack is predictable. They beat you by having their stars take and make difficult shots in isolation. Denver sorely missed Arron Afflalo’s defensive presence against Westbrook and Durant. Those two are great players individually but the Nuggets have the size and the bench to match up with OKC when healthy. The Thunder also provide a matchup with a similarly young team in which Denver may actually hold the upper hand in terms of collective playoff experience.
It is important not to overreact to the two recent losses to OKC. While the way they have lost these games is disheartening the Nuggets are still 8-2 in their last ten and their offensive woes against Oklahoma are not indicative of the team’s playoff potential. Point guard play, god awful shooting and free throw struggles are not things I believe will continue to haunt the Nuggets to the same extent in a playoff series with OKC.
Whoever the Nuggets end up facing in the first round you can count on an extensive playoff preview from Roundball. With my personal opinion out of the way I open up the comments for you guys to share your thoughts on the best playoff matchup. Could there be some among you that might actually fancy a first round Lakers series considering Los Angeles is playing some of the worst ball in the conference right now?
The Nuggets are still an unproven team and I think they face a great challenge against either Dallas or OKC in a first round series. While both scenarios pose unique challenges for the team I would caution against the conventional wisdom that Dallas is a sure-thing favorite that gives Denver a better shot at the second round.
Update: Here’s Kalen’s take on the matchup – a completely different viewpoint from mine
Predicting who the Nuggets will match-up with in the first round of the playoffs is difficult but has been narrowed down to three teams: the Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder or L.A. Lakers. Neither of these foes are teams the Nuggets would ideally liked to have drawn but all three are beatable, even the Lakers. Let’s first start off with the team I’d most like the Nuggets to see out of the three previously mentioned, then moved towards the one most Nuggets fans should be petrified to face.
The Dallas Mavericks — to me — stink of the potent stench of a team primed for being upset. Although they do have a nice record, it’s likely our Nuggets would have had roughly the same amount of wins if we’d had the entire year to work with this current squad. Nothing (and I repeat nothing) impresses me about this team. They’re the classic case of a Mark Cuban assembled Mavericks roster in that they have tons of talent, but never any real good chemistry, determination, heart, etc. They’re the epitome of a team who gets the record of a title contender, but one nobody actually considers a title contender. Led by the soft Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks continuously take on the identity of it’s star. They’re over-brimming with talent, but often times it’s masked by a real passion to be the absolute best and win the title. It’s my theory that the 2006 NBA Finals in which Dwyane Wade led the Heat back from being down zero games to two absolutely and entirely crushed the soul of the Mavericks into the gutless underachiever they’ve been ever since. The year following that defeat the Mavericks again continued to baffle the entire sports world by losing the the Golden State Warriors in the first round of the playoffs after assembling the best record in the league at 67-15. Since these two monumental collapses the Mavericks have consistently stumbled over themselves looking uninspired, lackadaisical and just plain flat in the post-season. Maybe this year will be different, but again, the Mavericks have shown me nothing to prove otherwise. Kidd’s old, Chandler’s a walking injury waiting to happen, Shaun Marion scares nobody (especially Kenyon Martin who would love to eat him for breakfast once he gets finished with Dirk) and continues to look like a complete idiot for forcing his way out of Phoenix for a bigger role — and who does that leave? J.J. Barea? Corey Brewer? Brenden Haywood? Are you kidding me? Look, the Mavs won’t be a total slouch like I may have led you to believe after reading this, but I just see no justifiable way we should lose to them if we’re fairly healthy, sadly though, that’s a big “if.”
I’m just gonna go ahead and say it, the Thunder worry the crap out of me. They’re young, have two legitimate stars (one being a “superstar”), have a clear-cut identity now with Perkins, have a pretty descent bench, can match-up with us if we try to run and of course have a former Coach of the Year who just so happened to come from the George Karl coaching-tree (Oh, and did I mention they not only beat us once in the past week, but actually turned around and completed this difficult accomplishment twice?) After seeing us lose to the Thunder on both occasions last week I don’t know how any realistic Nuggets fan could be excited to play them. Durant has totally dispelled the notion that quantity over quality when it comes to talent distribution is a viable theory that we were so ready to jump on the bandwagon about not too long ago. Point blank: He’s killed us and from the looks of it nobody has been able to stop him. That said… I do maintain a comfortable portion of confidence that we’d make a series out of meeting OKC, and I’m still positive that we can beat them. It’s gonna take a lot, and our primary goal has got to be making Afflalo and Chandler’s job solely to guard the Westbrook/Durant combo, but I’m still extremely confident that if we hold them in-check we should be able to beat the Thunder, because outside of those two they have nobody that can carry that team. The one last thing in the back of my mind that offers feelings of apprehension is a beastly defensive force down low by the name of Kendrick Perkins. This guy has proven since coming over to “Looouuuuuud City!” that he very well might have been the real defensive juggernaut that everyone thought KG was, as proven by both the Thunder and Celtic’s records since the trade. The man is just absolutely cantankerous defensively and will likely make Nene very aware of it from the get-go.
Lastly, the Lakers. Honestly at this point in time the Thunder might be more scary than the L.A. considering it’s dropped five-straight games, but you still can’t discount the fact that anytime Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant are on a team together they don’t often times get upset, if ever. But even with Bryant and Phil it’s the Lakers front-court that leaves me somewhat apathetic about facing them in the playoffs. I just see no way that the trio of Pau Gasol, Andre Bynum and Lamar Odom get outperformed by Kenyon Martin, Nene and Birdman. Call me pessimistic, but our biggest weakness for a looooooooong time has been our inability to handle taller, more skilled big men, and the Lakers bring three of them to the table. Can we win against the Lakers? I have no doubt in my mind that we can beat anybody this post-season, but it’s going to take a perfect storm, and I’ll leave it at that.