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Game 25 Preview & Thread: Nuggets vs. Thunder (7pm MDT)

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Kd_mediumLast season the Nuggets won two thrilling games versus the Thunder in Oklahoma City then played two melodramatic games against Kevin Durant and Company in Denver. SB Nation's Mike Prada has both the Nuggets (#6) and Thunder (#4) ranked in the Top 10 on his NBA 'Watchability' Scale this season ... so perhaps fireworks are in order tonight at the Pepsi Center.

The particulars ...

Records:
Denver:
17-7
Oklahoma City: 12-10 (6-6 at home, 6-4 on the road) (key wins: at Detoit, San Antonio and Miami and vs. Orlando)
Injuries:
Denver:
Kenyon Martin (dislocated left pinky) is probable.
Oklahoma City: Kyle Weaver (shoulder surgery) and Kevin Ollie (right knee surgery) are both out.

Opposition's Take: Welcome to Loud City

The most important thing that a young team has to learn is how to win the close games. Oklahoma City dropped two thrillers against the Nuggets last season by a combined three points. When the teams matched up on January 2, 2008 Kevin Durant hit the go ahead three-pointer with just 2.7 seconds left on the clock, but Carmelo Anthony answered by hitting the game winning three-pointer in the corner off a Kenyon Martin inbounds play giving the Nuggets a 122-120 win. (Watch it again here.)

The two teams faced off again in "Loud City" just over a month later on February 4, 2008 and the Nuggets once again found themselves down 113-112 with just 17 seconds remaining after a Kevin Durant bucket. Melo took the ball into the teeth of the Thunder defense and somehow hit a runner in the lane with 5.3 seconds remaining and Denver went on to win that one 114-113.

When the regular season series shifted back to Denver for games on March 11th and April 8th I expected more close battles ... well the games were exciting for Denver fans as the Nuggets won each contest rather easily with scores of 112-99 and 122-112. What will tonight's matchup have in store?

Oklahoma City is growing up and they are playing well in close games this season. The Thunder have a record of 4-5 in games decided by 9 points or less and a record of 2-2 in games decided by 4 points or less. Recently however, games involving Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green haven't been too close.

In their last five games the Thunder have either won or lost (3-2) by an average point margin of 13.2 points. The Nuggets on the other hand have found themselves in some tighter games and in their previous five (3-2) they have either won or lost by a margin of just 7.4 points.

The Thunder have a lot of young legs, but they could find themselves a little zapped for energy in the latter stages of the game since they played and lost yesterday to the Cleveland Cavaliers 102-89. Durant (42), Green (40) and Westbrook (34) each logged major minutes against LeBron's squad and that should play a role for the Nuggets tonight. Durant, the 21 year-old forward, boosted his third overall NBA scoring average (28.3 ppg) slightly with 29 points in the Cleveland loss.

Some other Thunder players to keep an eye on tonight:

  • A touch more on Durant. He's every bit of the listed 6'9'' and his length allows him to shoot over basically any defender. His length also causes his defenders to foul him a lot when they are trying to contest his shot. Durant averages 9 free throw attempts per game and he's hitting a career best 88.3% of them aka 7.9 per game. His first two seasons in the league he averaged 5.6 and 7.1 foul shots per game ... he's starting to learn how to draw fouls and that's not good for anybody assigned to cover him. Durant's three-point percentage has taken a pretty big dip this season as he's shooting just 28% from beyond the arc compared to 42% last year. KD is more of a volume distance shooter this year averaging 4.4 threes a game versus 3.1 attempts a year ago ... quality over quantity every time (not just a lesson that pertains to dating).
  • Russell Westbrook: The Thunder's second leading scorer averages 16.1 points per game to go along with 6.8 assists. This kid is a blur and thrives when he gets into the lane. I remember thinking last season that when he was going to the rim against Denver the Thunder were going to win the game ... then for no reason Westbrook and the rest of the team stopped attacking the Nuggets and they lost. Fast paced is the best way for Westbrook to play.
  • Jeff Green: The Thunder's third leading scorer at 15 points per game to go along with 6 rebounds. Green is somewhat of the forgotten man in the Thunder's "Big Three", but he is very dangerous. His overall offensive game is impressive and if Melo doesn't pay attention to him on the defensive end it wont matter how many points Melo can score because Green will negate them with his own points.
  • Rookie and 3rd Overall pick James Harden: The "Rook" is averaging just over 21 minutes a game and the kid can shoot. He's connecting on 36% of his three pointers and gives the Thunder another offensive weapon with his 9.2 points per game. I remember hearing he put up a 0-10 performance a while ago from three-point land and after looking at his game log it's true. On November 18th Harden went 6-7 from deep in Orlando, on Nov. 20th he went 4-6 from deep against the Wizards and then on Nov. 22nd in Los Angeles Harden posted the atrocious 0-10 stat line from deep against the Lakers. Somebody must have sat him down after that because since that three-game stretch he has been averaging just 2.25 three-point attempts per game.
  • Thabo Sefolosha: He plays the "Bruce Bowen" role for the Thunder. He's not asked to score a lot, but he is very athletic and can have good offensive nights. Sefolosha though is a good and active defender with a very difficult name to spell a la Dahntay Jones or Arron Afflalo. Why can't "defensive specialists" have easier names?
  • Nenad Kristic: Another fun name to spell and the Thunder's big man. When Kristic was playing in Russia last season I was hoping the Nuggets would somehow bring him to Denver, instead the Thunder swooped in and brought him back to the League. Kristic was looking like a young star in his early days with the Nets and was averaging 16.4 points and 6.8 rebounds during the 2006-07 season in 26 games, but he tore his ACL that year and has never quite made it all the way back. He's big (7' 240 lbs) and has talent on the offensive end, but Nene should be able to attack him by going strong to the rim.
  • Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison and Shaun Livingston: Ibaka and Collison form a big man tandem off the bench with Collison possessing decent offensive talent and a knack for being an annoying offensive rebounder against Denver. Livingston has seen more action recently averaging 15 minutes per game and I'm not sure if he got injured earlier in the season as he has 12 games of 0 minutes sandwiched between a little bit of action.

I'm looking forward to this game tonight as I've had it circled on my schedule all season. The Thunder are definitely an up-and-coming team and one that could challenge for a playoff spot this season. The Nuggets are coming off a game in which I commented to my friend in the first half, "this team might implode tonight," and then in the second half, "this could be one of those games that causes the team to rally and come together. They were on the brink of being blown out and somehow battled back."

You had to wonder if maybe the Nuggets had a "players only" type talk at halftime of that Suns game or what was said in the locker room. Yes, there are reports that Denver said they were going to come out and play hard, but I'm guessing the language was a bit more harsh than that.

What will the Nuggets do for an encore? We'll find out soon ...

Sidenote:

Just looking around the internet today and talking with some co-workers, I stumbled upon this Westword blog featuring the Birdman drinking glasses at Arby's. (A little clarity for MattressKing)

ntimmons73@yahoo.com
Twitter: Nate_Timmons

Photo courtesy of AP Photos: Lance Murphey