The Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder are both teams who benefited significantly from midseason trades. Each squad tore through the league over the final few weeks of the season and as a result we have had plenty of evidence for what these teams can do. To make things even more interesting we have two games worth of film to study, with both teams hosting the other late in the season.
The question is how germane were the results of those two games to the playoff series we are about to experience? Denver played both games against the Thunder without their third big, Chris “Birdman” Andersen and starting shooting guard Arron Afflalo. Obviously Denver is a better team with those two than without them. Health is certainly going to be a very important theme in this series and we will address those concerns a bit further down the page.
Despite the Nuggets missing some significant pieces I believe both games gave us some fairly significant insights into what to expect from the upcoming best of seven conflagration.
Any discussion surrounding the Thunder must begin with Kevin Durant and not just because put the fate of both my fantasy basketball teams on his shoulders. Durant has unlimited range and the length to shoot over anyone, he is very good off the dribble and loves to get in the lane. As a result, he gets to the line at a very high rate. The Thunder run sets for Durant as if he were a shooting guard running him off of all kinds of screens, circle cuts, pin downs and he will take part in pick and rolls as both the ball handler and screener.
Before you decide to put three defenders on Durant, you must take into account the vastly improved Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is not the perimeter threat that Durant is, but he is big, strong and lightning fast. He is a deadly scorer coming off a ball screen and is no Steve Nash, but has good enough instincts to set up his teammates when the defense collapses on him. Westbrook is also a force in transition where he rains dunks upon opponents like fireworks.
Obviously you cannot stop both of these talented players, but it gets worse. They are surrounded by big men with good hands who are adept at rolling to the basket, cutting into the lane or simply filling an open area ready to finish. Their other guards all move well without the ball and they have capable three point shooters who will make you pay for putting five defenders in the lane.
Denver has received a great deal of credit for leading the league in offensive efficiency, but the Thunder were right behind them in fourth place averaging only 0.9 points per 100 possessions than the Nuggets. This is a very good offensive team and it will be difficult to slow them down. The Thunder make you play defense for 20 seconds in the half court, but will run you off the floor if you give them the opportunity to. As good as they are, there is hope.
Denver played defense very differently in the two games against the Thunder. In game one, they came out of the gate switching every screen set for Durant. This typically left a big guarding him and he repeatedly settled for long threes because they naturally backed off a bit. In the second half Denver switched things up and put Kenyon Martin on Durant. In response to this tactic the Thunder stopped setting screens because they had a big on him, which was a matchup they wanted. Kenyon did a respectable job on Durant with Kevin mostly choosing to attack Martin off the dribble and pull up for midrange jumpers. On a couple of occasions Durant drove past Martin with his left hand and was able to get past him with relative ease. I was surprised at how many long twos and threes Durant attempted in game one despite having a quickness advantage over his defender almost every time he touched the ball.
As opposed to their switching tactic with Durant, the Nuggets chose to hedge and recover on all other ball screens and to fight through off the ball screens. Due to not having to commit two players to Durant when he was coming off of screens, one to show until the screened defender had time to catch up, they were in better position to deal with the plethora of ball screens set for Westbrook. That extra help did not keep Westbrook out of the lane completely, but it forced him to take more difficult and challenged shots inside. As a result he posted a 5-17 shooting performance.
In game two, a contest that was not nearly as important as game one was due to the fact the loss in the first game ensured Denver would not be able to catch the Thunder for the division title and home court advantage, the Nuggets played the entire contest with a vanilla defense choosing to fight through screens and hedge and recover on ball screens. Kenyon did not cover Durant at all instead Wilson Chandler and Danillo Gallinari drew the bulk of the Durant duty. Despite the change in tactics Durant continued to attempt mostly long twos and threes. In looking at his HoopData shot location stats, that has been a trend for most of the season as Durant attempted more than one and a half fewer shots per game at the rim than last season, but almost two more shots from 16 feet and out.
So how should the Nuggets defend the Thunder? You will see a mix of all of the above. I expect to see Denver defend Oklahoma City much more as they did in game one where they were switching screens set for Durant than game two. I believe they can better control Westbrook by doing so than they did in the second contest. The danger you run is seeing Durant simply begin attacking off the dribble, but settling for longer shots seems to be in his DNA.
As far as individual defenders for Durant when the Nuggets choose to fight through screens set for KD there is no single individual who is a great matchup. Afflalo is Denver’s best perimeter defender, but as Kalen has pointed out, he is so much shorter than Durant will Afflalo be able to challenge his shot? However, I was not impressed with how Chandler covered him as Wilson seemed to lose Durant on several occasions and despite his better size, is not capable of keeping Durant in front of him. Perhaps most of that is due to his compromised ankle, even so I am not very confident when I see Chandler lined up opposite Durant. Gallinari is closer to Durant’s size and has proven he will work his talk off defensively. He move his feet pretty well against KD, but at the expense of pressing out on him to ensure he can properly challenge the three point shot. Gallo is certainly a decent option to throw at Durant for a few minutes here and there. George Karl has said Kenyon will get some time opposite the Durantula as well. Kenyon is the best option to recapture the physical defense that Ron Artest used to harass Durant into a horrible series last year, but he does not have the quickness to keep Kevin in front of him. My biggest concern though is when Martin is on KD, Chandler is guarding Serge Ibaka. Oklahoma City did not take advantage of that in the first game although Ibaka was in great position for offensive rebounds repeatedly when Chandler was assigned to him.
Ultimately, all of those players will spend considerable time on KD. The most important factor is that they throw different schemes at him utilizing defenders with differing styles and approaches.
As impressive as the Thunder are offensively, the real area for Denver to be concerned is when the Nuggets possess the ball.
Ever since Denver has discovered the joys of unselfish offense the primary tool in the arsenal has been the pick and roll. When run properly, the pick and roll will always open up a fissure in the defense whether it is the ball handler, the roll man or someone cutting into the lane or spotted up on the weak side.
As we all know, not all defenses are crated equally and some teams do a better job of defending the pick and roll than others. It just so happens Oklahoma City is one of the better pick and roll defenses in the league. The biggest reason for their supreme competence is the ability of their big men to hedge and recover. Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison are two of the best pick and roll defending bigs in the NBA while Kendrick Perkins is no slouch himself.
The Nuggets experienced significant issues trying to run their pick and roll based offense against the Thunder as the guards had little room to maneuver and the lane seems to close up like the Dead Sea on the Egyptians. There are solutions to this problem though because remember, if you run the pick and roll correctly, someone will be open.
First of all spacing is key. The closer the help is, the quicker it can help and recover. For much of the game in Oklahoma City, Denver was far too bunched up. If they spread out it opens more gaps and puts more pressure on the defense.
Secondly, positioning is vital. Denver ran most of their pick and rolls heading towards the sidelines whether it was on a high pick in the middle of the floor or a pick on the wing. They were frequently dribbling into the teeth of the defense. The Nuggets had success getting in the with more room to operate by starting the dribbler near the sideling and setting a screen to the middle of the floor so that when they turn the corner, they are in the center of the court instead of down the side of the lane or even near the sideline where help is waiting.
Third, set solid screens. The Nuggets bigs were slipping almost all screens early in the two games we are discussing. I believe there is a reason for that which we will get to next, but slipping screens must be the exception, not the rule. If the screener always leaves early, the element of surprise is lost.
I believe the strategy the Nuggets were attempting to employ was to roll early in an attempt to exploit a slight gap that opens up as the Thunder bigs moved into position to hedge. This is a sound strategy, but it cannot be the tactic used every time, it must be rare enough to be at least somewhat unexpected.
Fourth, the roll man should be ready to pass. That may seem odd, but Perkins and Ibaka, especially Ibaka, are very aggressive help defenders as demonstrated by the dramatic blocks Oklahoma City has had at the rim. Both Kenyon and Nene are solid interior passers, both can catch on the move and both are good finishers. When the roller is moving down the lane with the ball, the weak side big must dive towards the rim to take advantage of the area the help defender is vacating. That tactic will also work when the Nugget setting the pick slips the screen as there is space to operate as long as it is a surprise.
I also believe Denver should attack Perkins much more often than Ibaka and Collison with the pick and roll. He is good, but not great and similar to Nene tends to sag when he hedges allowing more space to operate.
Denver would also be wise to incorporate more motion and screens before entering into the pick and roll as that disrupts the defense and can move them out of position making them more susceptible to the pick and roll. Multiple pick and rolls should also be executed in one possession. There was a time when the Nuggets would run two or three pick and rolls in succession. You may not always end up with your best pair running it, but by that time, if executed correctly, there should be plenty of gaps in the defense to take advantage of.
One final note on the pick and roll, Denver’s guards must be aggressive coming off the ball screen. In fact they can use the aggressiveness of Collison and Ibaka against them by forcing contact and potentially drawing fouls on the two of the far from the basket.
Two more notes before we move on. When Ty Lawson is in the game, he does not necessarily need a screen in order to get open. Denver should not be afraid of running isolation sets with Lawson to break down the defense and open up scoring opportunities for himself, cutting lanes or drive and kick opportunities for his teammates. It may not be exactly the way the Nuggets have been playing offense, but it certainly seemed to work in the second quarter of the game in Denver when Lawson scored 15 points.
If Denver is going to win this series, they must make their threes. After the trade Denver converted 38.8% from behind the arc and dropped in 8.2 makes a game. That dropped to 33.3% versus the Thunder with 5.0 makes a game. This was not a direct result of Oklahoma City’s defense. Denver was getting open shots, but they were simply not falling. I believe Denver needs Afflalo more for his three point shooting than his defense in this series. They also need Lawson to capitalize on his hot streak against Golden State and Chandler and J.R, to break out of their funk.
Now that we have dissected both teams on both ends of the floor, we can look at the transition game. Denver rarely faces a team that can run and gun as well as they can. Oklahoma City can hold their own and more in that department. The Thunder are very good at getting back, redirecting the ball handler and covering the running lanes. Denver is probably a little better at running than the Thunder, but despite Denver’s improved transition defense, Oklahoma City is a little better in that area. With speedsters like Lawson, Felton and Westbrook, there should be plenty of opportunities. Denver cannot afford to simply break even in this department. If they continue to struggle in the half court, they will need some easy buckets on the break. Not only did they not break even in Oklahoma City, the Thunder racked up 23 fast break points to Denver’s eight.
Finally, as important as the X’s and O’s are Denver is facing a potentially larger issue and that is they will be playing with important players either not available to play, or functioning at less than 100%. George Karl expects everyone to be ready to go come game time, but the list of maladies is long. Chandler has been dealing with a bad ankle for weeks. Afflalo is struggling to come back from a hamstring strain (why he kept trying to come back before he was ready, I have no idea. After one set back, just wait until there is no doubt you are completely healed.). Nene is dealing with a groin/abductor strain. Gallinari has a bad ankle and to throw salt in the wounds, Ty Lawson sprained his ankle in the last game of the regular season.
Out of all those injuries Lawson’s concerns me the most. He has been the one Nugget who can consistently create open quality shots for himself. That being said, Denver really needs all hands on deck in this series. Oklahoma City is a very good team and they do not care what Denver’s victory margin was in the regular season. The good news for Denver is they play the latest of the first round games (did the NBA do something nice for Denver?) and they only have one game in seven days with game two tipping off on Wednesday. There should be time to heal and I personally consider forcing Afflalo to sit out game one.
I know you are begging for this post to end, but believe it or not, there are other significant factors that we have not addressed. Denver shot less than 70% from the free throw line in the two contests against OKC. That must change. You cannot give points away at the line and beat this good of an opponent.
There will be some intriguing individual matchups as well. Nene must get the better of Perkins on offense. That does not mean Denver should be dumping the ball into the post and watching Nene go to work, but Maybyner cannot allow Perkins to take him out of the game. Also, he needs to be mindful of Ibaka. At least twice Nene allowed Ibaka to block shots at the rim because he was unprepared for Ibaka to be there.
I made my case yesterday why Denver should continue to use their depth as their greatest strength yesterday, but if there is one player who deserves time that I would glue to the bench, it would be Al Harrington. He completely failed to do his job on the glass as Ibaka simply abused him in the lane and it looks to me like the Thunder coaching staff has told their guards to attack Al in the pick and roll as they drive at him and around him until the end up at the rim. The one reason I would give him time is because Denver must make shots from downtown and Harrington can do that.
J.R. Smith is the other Nugget in danger of seeing more time on the bench than he would like. He was completely outplayed by James Harden, especially in Oklahoma City. Harden is very active whether it be off the ball, running the pick and roll or just working to get his own shot. J.R. lost Harden on more than one occasion and he did not do a very good job of staying in front of him. Smith has value even when his shot is not falling as a pick and roll passer, rebounder and at the very least a decoy to keep the defense honest. However, if he cannot do a better job against Harden and he has not broken out of his shooting slump, he is going to be watching from the cushy folding chairs. If that happens, you can expect at least one sideline outburst from Earl.
Nuggets fans are licking their chops at the prospects of sicking Afflalo on Westbrook. The issue is that would put Lawson on Sefolosha. Thabo is not a post up guy, but remember the havoc it caused when Iverson had to cover Vladimir Radmanovic three playoff seasons ago? When you voluntarily enter into mismatches, it rarely ends well. Even if Sefolosha does not drop a bunch of points on Lawson, the help that will be required to help protect him will compromise the integrity of the defense. If you are helping on anyone other than Durant or Westbrook, you are going to pay dearly.
The final unknown factor is what role will confidence play in this series. Denver can rest on the fact that they were shorthanded when they lost to the Thunder and thing will be different in the playoffs. However, in the back of their minds they will know that OKC was the only team to win in the Pepsi Center after the trade and rolled Denver pretty well in Oklahoma. In both games Denver fell behind early and was playing catch up all game long. If the Nuggets fall behind again, will their minds return to the results of the previous meetings?
On the other hand, Oklahoma City could be overconfident. They won in Denver and won easily at home. They do not believe Denver can beat them and they may have convinced themselves that deep down Denver does not think they can win. Confidence is vital, but too much of it can bring on a casual attitude.
I expect we will experience a great series. If you want to see my prediction, you will have to join the chat we will be holding along with Royce from Daily Thunder on Friday at 1:00 PM Mountain Daylight Savings Time.