It the latest edition of Roundball Mining Company’s 5-on-5 series we explore which potential playoff scenarios could benefit or hinder the Nuggets success in the postseason. Fellow readers T.J. McBride and Mitchell Carroll have been selected to participate this time around. If you’d like to contribute next time, be sure and follow Charlie, Jeremey and Kalen on Twitter. As always, please feel free to leave your answers to these questions in the comments section below.
1. Of the top four teams in the West, which is the most favorable matchup for the Nuggets?
Kalen: The Clippers by a mile. I don’t care what anyone says, the Lakers, Spurs and Thunder are the last three teams in the entire league the Nuggets want to see in the playoffs. The Clippers still scare me — mostly because they have Chris Paul and can exploit the Nuggets perimeter woes — but I think their inexperience could come back to bite them in the ass.
Jeremy: Despite Denver’s two home losses against the Clippers, I believe Lob City is the best matchup for Denver. The Nuggets have shown the ability to contain Blake Griffin and Ty Lawson has the ability to counteract the effectiveness of Chris Paul. Even Andre Miller displayed a knack to time Paul’s dribble and deflect the ball away from him. The two wins the Clippers have had at the Pepsi Center this season were fueled by outrageous shooting nights. The Clippers would need to get four performances like that in order to beat Denver in the playoffs and I think such consistently hot shooting is unlikely. I would give Denver a 40 percent chance of beating the Clippers, which is far higher than I would rate their chances against any of the other top seeds out West.
Charlie: The Clippers will no doubt be the popular answer here but I’m sticking with the San Antonio Spurs. All of the top four matchups will be difficult but the Spurs, like the Nuggets, lack a truly dominant player and rely heavily on their depth and offense to win games. The Spurs play at the fastest pace of all of the top four seeds except for Oklahoma City, and unlike the other teams lack a deep collection of front-court talent that could really punish the Nuggets for going small — and let’s face it, George Karl will being going small. To me, the Spurs could have trouble with their style of offense in the postseason.
Mitchell: It has to be the Clippers, right? Their lack of depth in both the front and back-court should allow the Nuggets to run all over these guys. While Chris Paul is certainly an intimidating matchup and Blake Griffin is, well, Blake Griffin, the rest of L.A.’s roster just isn’t that intimidating.
TJ: The best matchup for the Nuggets in the first round is the Clippers. The Nuggets have played them close in all four meetings this season. Lawson always plays Chris Paul well on both ends of the floor. Kenneth Faried has matched up surprisingly well against Griffin on both ends of the floor and has shown guts by not backing down. Arron Afflalo does a great job playing Caron Butler and Randy Foye. If the Nuggets can get average output from all their starters and limit the damage from beyond the arc, their bench should help them extend a lead they can keep for a win.
2. Of the top four teams in the West, which is the least favorable matchup for the Nuggets?
Kalen: Oklahoma City with the Lakers and Spurs not far behind. The Nuggets just can’t handle Durant, Westbrook, Harden or Ibaka. Not one of them! And yet, they’re all on the same team!?! I don’t even think the Nuggets would win a game against the Thunder if they met in the playoffs. Oklahoma City is on a mission from God to win a title, and the sooner they can get through a dysfunctional team like the Nuggets, the better.
Jeremy: Oklahoma City by a mile. I can see Denver giving the Spurs, Lakers and Clippers a run for their money but I have a very difficult time seeing them pulling out more than one win against the Thunder. The threesome of Durant, Westbrook and Harden is too much for Denver to handle. The plethora of options the Thunder have to score in close games down the stretch is a big reason why they have consistently beaten the Nuggets this season. For example, in the first meeting between the two teams the Nuggets had a five-point lead with only 43 seconds remaining in the game and went on to lose in overtime. The other problematic issue Denver faces against the Thunder is Serge Ibaka who has averaged a monstrous seven blocks per game against Denver this season.
Charlie: It’s easily Oklahoma City. Denver is ill-equipped to deal with Durant, Westbrook or Harden, all of whom have killed the Nuggets at one point in time. With McGee on board the Nuggets match up with Ibaka a bit better but I have doubts about McGee’s role and effectiveness come playoff time, where veterans Al Harrington and Andre Miller will likely see 30 minutes of playing time every game. If there’s one team that’s had the Nuggets number all year, it’s the Thunder, who are a lock to blow past the first round no matter who their opponent is.
Mitchell: The Thunder. No question. They are better at every starting position (outside of center, which is a wash) and have the ultimate late-game combo of Durant and Westbrook. Oklahoma City is on a mission for the Finals, and I honestly can’t see any team in the West stopping them, including Denver.
TJ: The least favorable matchup is the Thunder. Durant and Westbrook are the scoring duo you have to be afraid of. But the main problem for the Nuggets on this team is Serge Ibaka. The Nuggets two main ways to score are in the paint and in transition. Ibaka has taken away half their game whenever he is in. The Nuggets really struggle with a great shot blocker. When there is a shot blocker in the paint, they stop trying to penetrate. If the Nuggets are not driving into the lane, they usually lose the game.
3. Of the top four teams in the West, which offers up the deadliest combination of weapons to exploit the Nuggets biggest weaknesses?
Kalen: While the Thunder have the players, the Spurs seem to have the entire package. Veteran leadership, experience, defense, offense, smarts, schemes and most importantly, a coach who George Karl can only dream of becoming. Greg Popovich is the reason the Spurs are who they are at this point. While Karl has zero micromanagement skills, Popovich is teeming with them. Even if the Nuggets have a better roster, I’d bet on the Spurs 10 times out of 10 to beat the Nuggets thanks to Popovich outsmarting Karl on the regular.
Jeremy: Oklahoma City because the Nuggets have not fared well defending the perimeter this season. Afflalo is exerting too much energy on offense to play the level of defense we came to expect of him after his first two seasons in Denver. Andre Miller has shown increased effort and effectiveness on defense over the previous month, but he cannot stay with Westbrook nor can he handle Harden. Gallinari has had his moments against Durant, but you cannot expect him to put a dent in Durant’s scoring ability. It was not just happenstance that Durant and Westbrook combined to score almost 100 points in one game against Denver.
Charlie: I think it’s Memphis and Oklahoma City, who constantly have a shot-blocking presence in the game and play the kind of pesky perimeter defense that seems to turn the Nuggets into a one-on-one, jump-shooting team. More than anything the Nuggets need to avoid teams that can match the production of their bench and exploit Andre Miller and Al Harrington defensively. It’s another reason the Thunder is the nightmare matchup as we’ll likely see heavy doses of Harrington and Miller on Durant and Harden.
Mitchell: The Thunder. There is no one, and I mean no one, that can stop Durant or Westbrook on Denver’s roster. With Wilson Chandler out, Denver would be lucky to hold the “Durantula” to 25 a game. Meanwhile, Ty Lawson just doesn’t have the size to stay with Westbrook. With James Harden playing the way he is, Oklahoma City’s 3-point shooting would exploit just how truly awful the Nuggets perimeter defense is. The tough defense from Ibaka and Perkins down low would shut down what little post offense Denver has.
TJ: The Lakers are the team with weapons to hurt the Nuggets. Andrew Bynum is the biggest matchup problem for Denver. When the Nuggets play him, George Karl’s “small ball” lineup gets demolished. As if that isn’t enough, you still have Kobe. Then when the Nuggets try to double Bynum (or triple, as they did last meeting), Pau Gasol and Bryant get open jumpers. The Nuggets had trouble defending this group earlier this season and to make matters worse, the Lakers have added Ramon Sessions to the mix.
4. Outside of perennial All Stars (Durant, Westbrook, Paul, etc.), which Western Conference player should the Nuggets fear the most?
Kalen: I’m gonna say Andrew Bynum. Ibaka is a great choice as well but Bynum is a huge threat on offense which the Nuggets can’t handle. For years the Nuggets have been petrified of the Lakers and their big men. Now that Bynum is finally developing into the All-Star center many thought he’d be, it only makes matters worse. Seeing the Nuggets quadruple-team him a few weeks ago was grotesque. Watching four to five straight games of that might be enough to do me in once and for all.
Jeremy: I am going with a shooter from the Clippers and Spurs. Mo Williams and Danny Green both scare me because they are players who could, and have, exploited the Nuggets weak perimeter defense this season. Williams has had playoff experience and despite my desire to see Denver play the Clippers, he is talented enough to be the “x-factor” that carries the Clippers to a series win. Green shredded Denver in the first meeting between the two teams and his heady and steady play allows him to take advantage of situations where the defense is focusing on Parker or Ginobili.
Charlie: Three-point shooters. Denver recently surpassed New Jersey as the worst 3-point defense in the league, allowing their opponents to shoot a ridiculous 38.4 percent from deep. That’s just sad considering the league’s average 3-point shooting percentage is below 35 percent. Richard Jefferson and Matt Bonner are two prime examples of mediocre players who have feasted on the Nuggets soft perimeter defense, but the list of sub-par talents who can seriously hurt Denver from deep is a long one.
Mitchell: It’s a toss-up between Ibaka and Harden. Ibaka had a field day the last time these teams got together and Harden is playing out of his frickin’ mind this season. While Faried has shown he can play with the big boys, Ibaka is just bigger, more powerful and does whatever Faried does even better. Plus, who could stop Harden? Brewer? Afflalo? As good as they are at defense, I just don’t see it happening.
TJ: Serge Ibaka. His shot blocking ability is unmatched. He can also handle himself on the offensive end getting easy dunks or layups. He can rebound very well too. The Nuggets, as I said before, have trouble scoring in the paint when there is a legitimate shot-blocking threat. If the Nuggets don’t score in the paint, they don’t win games. He is the player on the Thunder that can make or break the game for the Nuggets.
5. Ultimately, which team do you see the Nuggets facing in the first round of the playoffs and what will be the outcome of that series?
Kalen: I think the Nuggets win three of their four remaining games to face the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Like always, the Lakers will kill the Nuggets with their size, discipline and now defense, while the Nuggets will struggle with the half-court game and playing solid, playoff basketball in general. I’m really not worried about Kobe Bryant. He’ll get his. It’s Bynum and Gasol that bothers me. They’ll likely have a field day with the Nuggets front court. A growing experience for our young players? Maybe. Who knows what excuses we’ll hear this year. All I know: S.S.D.Y. (The “Y” stands for “Year.”) Lakers in six.
Jeremy: I expect Denver to finish seventh in the West and to be matched up with the Thunder. It is the worst case scenario; what did you expect? This is the Nuggets we are talking about. The Spurs closing schedule is a cakewalk so I do not anticipate the Thunder passing them for the top seed. The Thunder are better this season than they were last season, while the Nuggets are nowhere near as good now as they were entering the playoffs last spring. I will say Denver will win a game and lose in five again. You can call it pessimistic; I call it realistic.
Charlie: I will stick with my prediction of a seventh-seed playoff berth and a first-round series with the Spurs. How Denver finishes the season will say a lot about their resolve, and subsequently, their chances against the best teams in the West. The Nuggets are playing better basketball but are still haunted by porous perimeter defense. I hope it doesn’t happen, but the injury excuse is already there and if Denver heads into the postseason without momentum, it’ll be over quick in a vintage 4-1 series loss to the Spurs.
Mitchell: I would love if Denver matched up with the Clippers because I think our pace, energy and size on the wing would equal a series win. And with the Clippers having a much more favorable schedule down the stretch than the Lakers, this matchup seems very likely. Nuggets in six games, and a date with the Spurs in the second round.
TJ: I see the Nuggets climbing to the sixth seed and playing the Clippers. The Nuggets schedule is easier than the Mavericks, which should allow them to jump up a spot in the standings. I also see the Clippers catching and passing the Lakers for the third seed in the West due to a favorable schedule and one extra game. This series will be a very interesting one where I can see both teams trading wins. The outcome will be the Nuggets in seven games.