We're back with more from Dogburt of Welcome to Loud City. When we were tossing around series preview ideas, Dogburt recommended that we do a role reversal. Who better to let us know the Thunder's weaknesses than a guy who has been watching the team closely all season? Nobody, that's who. So, let's find out what he had to say about how the Nuggets can win the upcoming series against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Nate: How can the Nuggets defeat the Thunder in this first round series?
Dogburt: Greetings, Nuggets faithful. With this highly anticipated playoff series looming on Sunday, we need to take a look at what Denver needs to do to pull off the playoff upset. Pundits and OKC fans alike don't think Denver's makeshift assemblage combined with their non-traditional style of play give them a chance. However, an upset is quite possible. I have the privilege of offering to you five essential elements that will be critical for Denver to vanquish the young OKC upstarts and move on to the second round.
1. Steal Game One.
We begin the OKC onslaught with what may seem like a no-brainer. It is obvious that Denver must win a road game in order to win the series, so, isn't game one as good as any? Here is the key though - the greatest weapon one team has against another is the other team's own sense of self-doubt.
The Thunder have spent 82 games earning the right to begin a playoff series in their home arena. 82 games. If the Nuggets can defeat the Thunder in game one, the effort in those 82 games is tossed in the toilet, just like that (/dramatically snaps fingers). Some teams swat away that nuisance as if it were a pesky gnat (Spurs, Celtics). Other teams however have not been able to recover and have blown series in which they were favored. The series that immediately comes to mind is when the Spurs met the Suns in 2007. The Suns won their division, were primed for a deep playoff run, and it appeared as if the Spurs were on a downward trend. Yet in game one, the Spurs shocked the favored Suns, stole their precious home court advantage, and it set the stage for the upset.
First and foremost in George Karl's mind should be the fact that the team his Nuggets are facing has, by and large, NEVER been in this kind of situation. OKC's two leaders, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, have never faced a situation where they are the favorites and a series hinges on them both playing well at home. The Thunder does have two players with championship rings - Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed - but they are both role players. For sure they will offer up advice and accountability for Westbrook and Durant to take heed to, but at the end of the day the pressure will be on those two young men to perform at an elite level.
If the Nuggets want to really challenge the resolve of the young Thunder, firing with full barrels in game one to throw OKC off balance is a perfect way to do it.
2. There is a soft underbelly to the ThunderBeast. Find it and exploit it.
If you look at some of the losses OKC has suffered in the last 30 days of the season (Raptors, Clippers, Trail Blazers), you will see that the Thunder have adopted some consistent patterns with their flow of play. No longer do they struggle early on, so Denver getting a fast start is not essential and conversely, Denver getting off to a slow start is no reason to panic. What IS imperative is an awareness of when OKC has its two in-game let-downs.
Specifically, there are two standard occasions when the Thunder is more likely to ease up on their intensity. The first is during the last three minutes of the first half. The second squishy part that is begging to be punctured is midway through the 3rd quarter. To wit:
2nd quarter - Thunder leads by 10 with 3 minutes to go. The Nuggets close out the half on a 14-5 run, cutting the lead to a single point.
3rd quarter - OKC goes almost six minutes without making a shot. An eight point Nuggets deficit turned into a one point lead.
2nd quarter - Thunder seems to have a commanding 13 point lead with just over three minutes to go. The Nuggets go on an 11-4 run to close out the half, narrowing the deficit to a very manageable six points.
3rd quarter - This stretch is the real reason why the Nuggets lost. Instead of making up ground during the normal Thunder 3rd quarter siesta where OKC only scored 10 points through seven minutes, the Nuggets could only counter with seven points of their own. Once this stretch had passed, the Thunder righted themselves and scored 46 points over the next 17 minutes.
I have watched this Thunder play, and I can tell you that this scenario has happened almost every single game. A good coach like George Karl will see these sequences and know that these are the perfect times to increase the pressure, both offensively and defensively. And keep in mind that when the monstrous foe reveals its weak spot, the slayer cannot miss.
3. Take the Thunder bigs for a ride.
When you think of the Thunder front line defense of Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, Nazr Mohammed, and Nick Collison, you can see a group that has learned to contend with the muscle guys of the league, such as Andrew Bynum, Al Jefferson, and Zach Randolph. What those Thunder guys love the most is an offensive onslaught that operates like the classic NY Giants running game - force meeting force, and the mountain tips one way or the other. What these guys do not like to do is move around in open space.
Everything about the Thunder defense begins with Kendrick Perkins. The man is built like a Sherman Tank, but you must not forget that he's still coming off of a major knee injury and has played less than half a season. His conditioning is still not yet all the way back. As such, Perkins does not have his full range of motion, and this limitation becomes most evident when he is trying to guard men out in space. He was ineffective against the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Andrea Bargnani, and even JaVale McGee. He simply does not have the lateral movement yet to stay in front of mobile big men. I know that it is not Nene's natural tendency to face up to the rim, but he will have much greater effectiveness against Perkins if he begins his offense in open space, especially using high screens. Perkins wants Nene to back him down so that the two men's strength is the focal point of their personal battle. Nene can reverse Perkins' strength by turning it into a weakness.
If Nene can alter the way Perkins plays defense, everything else follows. Serge Ibaka, who IS quick and athletic, is still a relative novice to the game. He is at his best when he can rely on Perkins to hold the fort, allowing Ibaka to roam free and then swoop in for a plethora of weak-side blocked shots. However, if Perkins is pulled away from the rim, Ibaka will be forced to play the focal point, and he has struggled mightily in this role. Kenyon Martin, while not a great post player, is still adept enough at the interior game to get scores against the still-green Ibaka.
The final piece of the puzzle is in understanding how neutralizing Perkins affects the perimeter defense. The Thunder struggled mightily early in the season with their defensive rotations on the perimeter. By lacking an interior defensive presence, the Thunder often found themselves out of position in their help defense. It caused them for a time to fall amongst the ranks of the worst in defending the 3-point shot. The addition of Perkins and to a lesser degree Mohammed has corrected this problem, but OKC is still prone to double-teaming post players even when Perkins doesn't need it. If the Nuggets can actually force Perkins to require help, there is a likelihood that Denver can cause the Thunder to revert to those early season bad habits. In doing so, it will spring free Denver's 3-point shooting, which by and large was bottled up in the two previous Thunder wins.
4. Be physical with Durant.
Kevin Durant is about 6'10" and is long, lithe, and athletic. He also weighs about 150 lbs (exaggerating, but only slightly). Nuggets fans might look at their team and see guys like Danilo Gallinari, Arron Aflalo, Wilson Chandler, and Al Harrington and think, "We have the height and length to cover Durant." This confidence is misplaced. After watching Durant go through his ups and downs this season, one thing that I have determined is that guys that are similar to him physically offer little to any resistance at all.
The essential key to stopping Kevin Durant is to be physical with him. There are three guys in particular who have excelled in slowing down Durant. Those men are Ron Artest, Tony Allen, and Gerald Wallace. None of those guys are taller than 6'7". What sets them apart is that they know how to physically dominate a player who is not as strong as them. When those men have gone to battle against Durant, they did everything they possibly could to limit Durant's freedom of movement. They pushed him, held him, kept their hands on him, and controlled his movement throughout.
Did they block Durant's shot? No. Did they challenge his shot? Only on occasion. However, what they did do extremely well is make Durant go where he did not want to go. The more they pushed him, the further he moved away from the rim. Durant would begin the games setting up inside of 15 feet, but by the end of contests against those players' teams he was engaging his offense five feet beyond the 3-point arc. At this point in Durant's career, he simply does not have the strength to maintain a low post position and can be moved to where he doesn't want to go.
Aflalo? Gallinari? Forget about it. Denver needs to use stronger men like Kenyon Martin, Chris Andersen, and even Nene to have a real effect on Durant. Be forewarned though, Durant has begun to figure out the ploy. The hole a defense leaves when it continues to use a stronger but slower guard is if and when Durant decides to start driving the ball. In the Thunder's win against the Lakers, this is precisely what Durant did on Ron Artest, and Artest could not stay in front of him. At the end of the day though, Durant wants to move around, catch, and shoot. If Denver keeps him from going where he wants to go, they will give themselves a major advantage in slowing down Durant.
5. Force Westbrook to go into "hero mode."
To understand the Russell Westbrook experience, you can start with the greatness of Derrick Rose and then take that model and tip it on its less than stable hind legs. While Rose has evolved into a player that possesses a steady mean of performance on which his team can count, Westbrook's performance operates in the second, and sometimes third, deviations. If you want a basis of comparison, think about the gifted but raw LeBron James in his first two to three years in the league, only with less temperament.
Westbrook is a compact ball of physical freakishness wrapped up in a mercurial disposition. He can come apart when he's not mentally in the right place, and the Nuggets have the April 5th game as evidence. When it was apparent that the Thunder could not stop Ty Lawson off of his dribble drives, Westbrook resorted to AAU mode instead of shutdown mode. Rather than try to contain Lawson's quickness with his own physical skill set, instead Westbrook got into the game of one-upmanship. He made the game about himself rather than the team. Instead of focusing on his own team, Westbrook began reckless forays into the lane, attempting one on three drives to the basket and overaggressive fast break plays. His lack of focus allowed Denver to get back into a game in which they were being outplayed. It was not until Westbrook was benched for an extended period of time did he refocus himself so that he was helping his team, not hurting it.
So for the Nuggets, they would do well to make Westbrook go to that "hero mode" place. The Nuggets like to play at a fast pace, and that is well and good, but it is not the pace that bothers the Thunder; it is what the pace can do to Westbrook that causes things to break down. If Lawson and Felton can cause Westbrook to play at an overaggressive pace, it is likely going to be the single biggest factor in the Nuggets' chances to win.
Understand this - if Denver cannot control Westbrook, Denver will lose. There is no doubt in my mind that if Westbrook is playing within his talent set and not beyond it, he will tear Denver apart. However, if Denver can coax him to step out on his own island, not only can the Nuggets neutralize him, they can also, like a judo toss, use Westbrook's game against him and the Thunder themselves.
Double-edged sword, I believe they call it.
Prediction: Thunder in 7.
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