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Thunder vs. Nuggets: Playoffs start two weeks early... (7pm MDT)

The NBA playoffs aren't slated to start until Saturday, April 16th. But the Nuggets best-of-nine playoff series against division rival Oklahoma City Thunder begins Tuesday night.

NBA scheduling has always puzzled me. You'd think that the schedule-makers would want the four (two home, two away) mandated inter-division games to be played sparingly over the course of an entire NBA season. And yet among their final six games to close out the 2010-11 season, the Nuggets get to face division rival Oklahoma City twice within just four days.

At least each game for the Nuggets is on the front end of a back-to-back, and not the second.

And for that very reason, the Nuggets could potentially catch up to their division rival in the standings and even climb over them for the Western Conference's four-spot in the playoffs. This, of course, would require the Nuggets beating the Thunder on both occasions, taking down the Mavericks in that Wednesday back-to-back at Dallas and hoping the Thunder drop a few more games along the way.

To quote Lieutenant Frank Drebin from The Naked Gun, "That's a pretty tall order, Nordberg."

It is indeed, but it's actually important and here's why: since moving to Oklahoma City from Seattle, the Thunder (nee Supersonics) have never won in Denver. And of the five games played at Denver between the two teams, only one was decided by less than nine points. That's the good news. The bad news is that the Thunder have demonstrated an ability to beat Denver at Oklahoma City (where they've won two out of the last three) and they're closing the gap at Pepsi Center, too. In the two teams' last Pepsi Center meeting, the Thunder lost by just five points.

But that was all with #15 leading the way for Denver, so the jury's out on how the new-look Nuggets will do against the Thunder. I guess we'll have nine or so games to figure that out.

I for one think that the Thunder present a somewhat favorable matchup for our Nuggets. They're not particularly tall, they're very superstar-focused and they have a relatively inexperienced playoff coach manning their bench. Home or road, the Nuggets can beat the Thunder. And with their best-of-nine playoff series about to begin, I figured we'd do our scouting report now...

Small Forward: Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari versus Kevin Durant

Having seen Wilson Chandler play in person multiple times now, I can assure our readers that his wingspan is much longer than expected and he might be the team's most versatile defender when it comes to shooting guards and particularly small forwards - which just happens to be Kevin Durant's position on the floor. Chandler did a great job Sunday harassing the Lakers' Kobe Bryant into an assortment of tough-twos, and by game's end Chandler's effort was rewarded when Bryant came up empty down the stretch. I look forward to seeing how Chandler handles Durant outside the paint. And should Durant get to the basket, that's where Kenyon Martin comes into play to make KD think twice about doing it again.

Danilo Gallinari, on the other hand, probably isn't the small forward you want checking Durant. Durant is faster and more athletic, and for all of Gallo's shooting prowess he can't become a great athlete overnight. But Durant can't play 48 minutes a game (he comes close, averaging almost 40 mpg) and having to go head-to-head against Chandler and then Gallo could theoretically wear Durant down. Theoretically.

Advantage - Thunder: Even though the Nuggets have two fine small forwards, Durant is the NBA's second-best small forward after LeBron James.

Power Forward: Kenyon Martin, Al Harrington and Danilo Gallinari versus Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison

I'm cheating a little bit by counting Gallo as a small and power forward, but against the Thunder he could potentially play both positions as can "Big Al" Harrington. Or perhaps Karl will play Nene next to the Birdman by having Nene slot in at power forward. Either way, the Nuggets will have enough talent at power forward to fill in minute-for-minute against Ibaka and Collison, two of the guttier and tougher - if not necessarily "talented" - power forwards in the Western Conference.

Advantage - Even: Martin has been the Nuggets emotional and vocal leader since the All-Star break, but he's going to have his hands full with Ibaka and Collison. Harrington will have to step up defensively and Karl will have to seriously consider giving Nene some power forward minutes.

Center: Nene, Timofey Mozgov and Chris Andersen versus Kendrick Perkins and Nazr Mohammed

The Thunder's Kendrick Perkins is a load to deal with and I suspect the Celtics will regret trading him when they draw the soft Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference's second round. But the Celtics loss is the Thunder's gain, and Perkins will make for a tough offensive night for the Nuggets' Nene (those soft finger rolls and flip shots that Nene likes to attempt around the rim won't work against the big Perk). That said, Perk is the only true center on the Thunder's roster of any substance whereas the Nuggets have three: Nene, Mozgov and Andersen. Sure, Mohammed is giving the Thunder a few fill-in minutes off the bench, but he's not scaring anybody.

Advantage - Nuggets: Perk is tougher than all three Nugget centers combined, but he doesn't have the offensive repertoire of Nene nor the depth behind him to spare him valuable rest minutes.

Shooting Guard: Arron Afflalo, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton versus Thabo Sefolosha, Nate Robinson and James Harden

Sefolosha is the Thunder's version of Dahntay Jones: even though he can't shoot, he gets physical with the opposition's shooting guard and makes for a tough night for anyone. Neither Sefolosha nor Harden can shoot straight, but that doesn't stop Harden from trying to the tune of four three-point attempts per game. The Nuggets, on the other hand, have an eclectic assortment of shooting guards. Afflalo is the most versatile offensively and defensively, but he's not strong. J.R. has all the goods physically and skill-wise, but not the head for crunch-time playoff situations. And Felton is really a point guard, but he often mans the shooting guard position when playing next to Ty Lawson.

Advantage - Nuggets: Regardless of how the minutes are chopped up, the Nuggets have more talent at shooting guard and should win the day here.

Point Guard: Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton versus Russell Westbrook and Eric Maynor

Lawson and Felton form one of the best one-two punches at the point guard position in the NBA. But Westbrook is a top-four point guard alongside Derrick Rose, Deron Williams and Chris Paul. Westbrook is also much bigger and stronger than Lawson and much faster than Felton. I see Westbrook's impact on this nine-game series being the ultimate deciding factor. If the Nuggets can somehow contain Westbrook and make Durant do all the work offensively, the series can be won by Denver.

Advantage - Thunder: In a league with plenty of good point guards, Westbrook is far and away one of the best. At least Lawson can match his speed and Felton can match his strength.

Bench

The Thunder go 10 deep, and that's if you count Maynor and Mohammed as "deep". The Nuggets go 11 deep if you include Mozgov.

Enough said.

Advantage - Nuggets

Coaching

George Karl has 74 postseason coaching victories (he gets credit for two last season) and his former disciple Scott Brooks has just two. But hey, you gotta start somewhere! It's tough to argue with Karl's regular season success as an NBA coach - he has overseen 19 consecutive seasons without a losing record and will guide the Nuggets to a fourth-straight 50-win season - but his blind spot has come in the postseason where he's won just 44.3% of his games and has gotten the Nuggets out of the first round just once. Karl is anything but conventional, however, and has told me he'll play the full Nuggets roster in the postseason, something we haven't seen since Detroit's "Bad Boys" went nine-deep in the late 1980s even though most coaches tighten up their playoff rosters.

Advantage - Nuggets: In what might be a match-up of back-to-back Coach of the Year winners, I'll take Karl's experience over Brooks' any day of the week.

Final Thought

Even though the Nuggets have the "on paper" advantage over the Thunder in many areas, don't discount the prowess of Durant and Westbrook. Yes, the new-look Nuggets have proven that you can win without a superstar and beat the teams who have them, but historically speaking every team (except the 2004 Pistons) that's won a championship since 1980 has had two if not three: the Lakers with Magic/Kareem/Worthy, the Celtics with Bird/McHale/Parish, the 76ers with Malone/Erving, the Pistons with Thomas/Dumars, the Bulls with Jordan/Pippen, the Rockets with Hakeem/Drexler, the Lakers with Shaq/Kobe, the Spurs with Duncan/Robinson and then Duncan/Ginobili/Parker, the Heat with Wade/Shaq, the Celtics with Garnett/Pierce/Allen and now the Lakers again with Kobe/Gasol.

But before we can dream about our Nuggets besting Duncan/Ginobili/Parker and Kobe/Gasol this year, they have to get through Durant/Westbrook first.

And their nine-game series begins Tuesday night.

Opposition's Take: Welcome to Loud City