Let's be realistic, shall we Stiffs? It's not likely that the Denver Nuggets will be able to shoehorn their way into the top 4 seeds. As of today, here is Denver's record against each of the current top 4 seeds:
San Antonio Spurs*: (1-2)
Oklahoma City Thunder *: (0-2)
Los Angeles Lakers: (1-2)
Los Angeles Clippers: (1-2)
The Lakers currently hold a 4 1/2 game lead on the Nuggets, while the Clippers hold a very slightly less distant 3 game lead. Denver does still have a chance to at least tie the season series with the Lakers and the Clippers, but even if they do, Denver has a lot of difficult ground to make up. Of Denver's remaining 11 games:
- 6 games are on the road (Golden State, Lakers, Houston, Phoenix, OKC, Minnesota)
- 2 games are against Houston, which Denver is currently in a tie with for the 7th/8th seed
- Denver does not have the tiebreaker over either Dallas (1-2) or Memphis (0-3)
If Denver loses either game against the Lakers or against the Clippers, they'll be almost virtually locked into the 6/7/8 seed against the current top 4. All that said: let's play a game of "good matchup/bad matchup". In all likelihood, Denver's going to be on the road against one of those top 4 teams.
San Antonio Spurs (39-14)
Good Matchup: Although the Spurs still have their "big three" in Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan still intact, the Nuggets have shown that the Spurs are more vulnerable this year to the Nuggets' favorite way of playing: getting out in transition. With a youth movement also occuring in San Antonio, this isn't the same "always play slow" Spurs team of old. They're liable to get into a running game if the Nuggets push the pace, and they simply don't have the same level of athleticism Denver does. Kenneth Faried matches up very well with the dynamic Kawhi Leonard, JaVale McGee and Kosta Koufos can neutralize DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter, and neither Boris Diaw nor Matt Bonner are particularly egregious threats - though Bonner can drain the three ball.
Bad Matchup: Last time I checked, Gregg Popovich still coaches the San Antonio Spurs. The four-time NBA champion and former Coach of the Year frankly deserves the COY award this year for taking a team that was (once again) written off by most and guided them to a top seed in a volatile Western Conference through a very compressed season. Frankly, Popovich has and will coach circles around George Karl. He knows exactly how to get the most out of his players. When combined with the level of playoff experience Parker, Ginobili and Duncan bring to the table, it's very likely they will be able to get under the skin of the young, inexperienced Denver Nuggets. Denver has also been frustrated by flopping teams this season, and although the Spurs don't do it as often as they used to, they still have one of the premier floppers in the league in Ginobili.
Final Thoughts: I do like Denver's chances against the Spurs more than I do against the Thunder, but both are fairly awful matchups for the Nuggets. I think that if Denver could steal a game in San Antonio, they might be able to take the series to 6 games, but I still think San Antonio comes out on top.
Oklahoma City Thunder (40-15)
Good Matchup: If there's one advantage Denver has on the Thunder, it's their bench. Aside from James Harden, the Thunder have an uninspiring bench squad, particularly with the injury to Eric Maynor earlier in the season. Nick Collison, Nazr Mohammed, Lazar Hayward and Derek Fisher don't exactly strike fear into the hearts of mortal men. Meanwhile, Denver's bench has been particularly good at racking up points, led by Al Harrington (leading the NBA in double doubles off the bench - and I'm not talking about the In-N-Out burgers). If Denver has any shot at beating the Thunder, it's going to have to be on the contributions of the 2nd unit.
Bad Matchup: Kevin Durant is as good or better than LeBron James right now. Russell "Westbrick" Westbrook is one of the most dynamic scoring guards in the league and is capable of torching any backcourt. Serge Ibaka's blocking ability makes Chris Andersen and JaVale McGee look like Scott Hastings. Simply put, even if the Nuggets had a completely healthy Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler back - and it's not clear that they will - they would be underdogs here. The Thunder simply have more talent in their starting 5 than do the Nuggets.
Final Thoughts: Denver would probably get swept or lose in 5 against the Thunder. I give them less than a 10% chance to take more than 1 game in a series against the Thunder this season.
Los Angeles Lakers (35-21)
Good Matchup: Much to the chagrin of the ever-present LA bandwagon fans, the Lakers simply aren't the perennial world beaters they used to be, are they? With the departure of Phil Jackson, the addition of head coach Mike "I don't know how to run an offense" Brown and an older-than-ever Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers are just not as scary as they once were. Outside of their starting 5 of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Metta World Peace and Ramon Sessions, the Lakers are have an extraordinarily thin bench. Do the names Josh McRoberts, Andrew Goudelock, Jordan Hill, Steve Blake or Matt Barnes strike particular fear into you? No? Me either. If the Nuggets can find a way to neutralize Kobe - probably with a combination of Corey Brewer and Arron Afflalo - they stand a very good chance of making a competitive series out of this matchup.
Bad Matchup: Kobe Bryant. He's still Kobe Bryant. He can take over games and will his team to win when they might otherwise have no business doing so. Supported by the senior Gasol and noted piece of human garbage Andrew Bynum, the Nuggets would need to rely on the inconsistent play of Timofey Mozgov, Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee to neutralize the Lakers' monstrous frontcourt. Ramon Sessions, acquired to replace the venerable Derek Fisher, is fast enough to keep up with Ty Lawson. While not a Matt Barnes fan, I respect his tenacious defense and he would be very bothersome to either Arron Afflalo or Danilo Gallinari on the wings.
Final Thoughts: Denver has a real shot against the Lakers this year. Clearly, the Lakers are still adjusting to Mike Brown's "coaching" style, and with a Kobe Bryant determined to prove that he's not getting old, the Nuggets could force them into a few bad games. To really have a shot at taking the Lakers, the Nuggets would need to gameplan around neutralizing Bynum and Gasol, and hopefully Bryant will force his way into a few 3-21 nights.
Los Angeles Clippers (33-22)
Good Matchup: The playoff-inexperienced Clippers are perhaps Denver's best matchup in the playoffs this year. With an injured Chauncey Billups on the sidelines, the Clips have a number of vulnerabilities the Nuggets can exploit - namely their defense. Blake Griffin doesn't play any, and neither Randy Foye nor Caron Butler are particular defensive stalwarts. The Clippers are also prone to taking very bad shots, and are just average in rebounding (18th), sharing the ball (15th) and giving up points (14th). Denver would need strong guard play out of Andre Miller and Ty Lawson to neutralize Chris Paul, but otherwise Denver's lanky frontcourt has the size to give DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin real problems.
Bad Matchup: It should come as no surprise that a team from Los Angeles is great at acting. Blake Griffin, in my eyes, has gone from a dynamic young talent to one of the most egregious flopping whining players in the NBA. Between he and Chris Paul, there'll be more wind between their bodies when they fall over - barely touched - than at a baked bean eating competition. Chris Paul is excellent off the pick and roll, and to date the Nuggets have shown they still are trying to understand what those words mean together. If CP3 and Griffin figure out that they can flop and roll their way to victory, it'll be a long series for the Nuggets.
Final Thoughts: Denver can beat the Clippers in a playoff series. Period. Outside of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, the Clippers are a decidedly average team with a decidedly average coach in Vinny del Negro. It would take an excellent coaching job from Karl to keep the Nuggets from letting the always-flopping Clippers get under the skin of of the team, but I fully believe that the Nuggets squad is, on the whole more talented and a better team than the Clips.
Who do you think the Nuggets have the best shot against in this year's playoffs?