The Oklahoma City Thunder are making their bid to be a playoff team a bit earlier than expected. I foolishly thought the Thunder would finish 10th out West this year, but Oklahoma City has a chance to finish anywhere from No. 2 to No. 8 as they currently sit 6th in the Western Conference.
The particulars ...
Denver: 39-21 (24-5 at home, 14-16 on the road)
Oklahoma City: 36-23 (19-11 at home, 17-12 on the road)
Denver current streak: Lost 2. They are 5-5 in their last 10 games.
Oklahoma City current streak: Won 3. They are 8-2 in their last 10 games.
Denver: Renaldo Balkman (back strain), Ty Lawson (left shoulder contusion) and Chris Andersen (right knee tendinitis) are all listed as DAY-TO-DAY and will be game time decisions.
Oklahoma City: None.
Opposition's Take: Welcome to Loud City
As things sit out West, as of this writing, the Thunder actually would meet the Nuggets in the playoffs if the season ended today. How about a first-round series featuring Carmelo Anthony vs. Kevin Durant? The press would absolutely love it, but Nuggets Nation should be wary of a young team that may not know any better than to give Denver fits in the postseason.
Look no further than these two teams previous match-up. On January 29th the Thunder gave the Nuggets a good whooping in "Loud City" with a 101-84 win. The Boom-Boys (as named here by the Denver Stiffs readers), made up of Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook, combined for 57 points and the Thunder used that contest to start a 9-game, highly publicized win streak. Since then the Thunder have rattled off an 12-2 record with notable victories over the Nuggets, @Hornets, Hawks, @Blazers, Mavericks and Raptors.
Conversely, since that Jan. 29th loss to the Thunder, the Nuggets have been very mediocre with a 8-7 record over their previous 15 games. About the only positive to draw from the Nuggets' seven losses ... only one came to a team (Wizards) that currently isn't a Top 8 team in the Western Conference standings.
Tonight Denver will face the second-leading scorer in the league in Durant (29.7 ppg). Please click here and go look at the guy's game log point totals. Durant just never has really bad nights, he's only had three-games all season in which he's scored less than 15 points, but he still hasn't been held to any single digit scoring nights as 12 points is the fewest he's scored all season in a single game. For 29 games starting December 22nd and ending on February 24th the string-bean scored 25+ points in every game. How is this for some company?
Durant's streak of 25-plus point games is a franchise record and was the longest since Michael Jordan's 40 in a row in 1986-87.
It's nearly impossible to stop the 6'9'' Durant's jump shot with his length and when he drives to the hoop, his long arms allow him to dunk the ball at some pretty incredible and awkward angles. He's basically the perfect scoring machine and like we've seen with Melo, he's only going to get better at just 21 years-old.
I speak very kindly of Durant as well as his teammates because it's just a well put together squad. The only thing missing from the Thunder is a dominant inside presence that can take over in the post and block shots. (Don't tell Serge Ibaka that as he's averaging 1.1 blocks per game).
Oklahoma City actually reminds me a little bit of the Denver Nuggets pre-Kenyon Martin. Denver was very careful with their salary cap room and had built a team around their young scorer (Melo) and snuck into the playoffs, but needed that inside force. The Nuggets chose to spend their cap room on Martin and soon the Thunder must address their need inside as well. General Manager Sam Presti has created ample salary cap room and just needs to identify that missing player.
For now, the Thunder are showing they are good enough to get into the playoffs this season and that could potentially be a dangerous thing, but history usually shows a few lumps must be taken before playoff success can be had (at least that's what we know of Melo's playoff history.)
Tonight though, the Nuggets are in a must-win situation. Denver cannot afford to relinquish the second seed and with Dallas, Utah, Phoenix and OK City surging - every game is of mass importance. I am a bit concerned that nagging injuries are going to really hurt the Nuggets and I'm nervous that the team may be pooped by the time the playoffs roll around, but that's the situation we are in and the team must make the best of it ... starting tonight.
- Before the start of each season I go through each game and mark down wins and losses and follow my predictions throughout the season. Over the past 15 games the Nuggets are 8-7 (From Jan. 29th to now) and I had them pegged to go 7-8 in that stretch. After seeing that Denver is actually a game better than I thought, I don't feel as bad about this rough patch. I even had that Washington loss, but that was back when I thought they still had Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler.
- If the Birdman is not able to play tonight (and maybe he shouldn't play again until Sunday against the Blazers) I'd really like to see what Johan Petro can do. All this 7-footer talk and we haven't even given our in-house man a chance. When Petro stepped on the floor against the Dallas Mavericks on Feb. 9th he played 22 minutes, shot 5-5 from the floor, 3-3 from the foul line, 1 block, 5 rebounds and scored 13 points. He also had 2 turnovers and 2 fouls. It'd be nice to see what the 24 year-old kid can do with some extended time. Since that performance, Petro has only been on the floor once and that was for just 5 minutes. What gives?!?!
- The Thunder come into tonight's game having won at home last night against Sacramento (113-107). Durant scored 39 points and added 10 rebounds, while Russell Westbrook added 30 points and 13 assists.
Photo courtesy of AP Photos: David Zalubowski