30-plus games into the 2011-12 lockout season, it's clear that the Oklahoma City Thunder are leaps and bounds ahead of our Denver Nuggets. And with the Nuggets still beset by injuries, winning at Oklahoma City on Sunday night will be no easy feat.
Records: Denver: 17-14 (9-7 on the road) Streak: Lost 2 Oklahoma City: 23-7 (11-1 at home) Streak: Won 1
Injuries: Denver: Timofey Mozgov (left ankle sprain) is probable. Danilo Gallinari (left ankle sprain) is out. Nene Hilario (left calf strain) is questionable. Oklahoma City: Eric Maynor (torn ACL) is out. Thabo Sefolosha (right foot soreness) is out. Kendrick Perkins (right knee contusion) is day-to-day. Russell Westbrook (sprained right ankle) is probable.
With the Carmelo Anthony Era in Denver appearing further and further in our collective rear view mirrors (and seeing Melo's current team, the Knicks, rack up win after win without him) there's not much to miss about not having Melo around. With one exception.
Melo owned the Oklahoma City Thunder. And without him, the Thunder now own the Nuggets.
With Melo on board, the Nuggets were 8-2 against the Thunder (since the franchise relocated to Oklahoma City from Seattle in 2008). Since Melo's departure, the Nuggets are 1-6 against their neighboring state rivals, including last year's playoffs when the Thunder won in five games. Granted, the Nuggets were a few suspect calls away from making that playoff series more competitive, but even die-hard Nuggets fans must admit that the Thunder out-muscled, out-rebounded and out-energy'd the Nuggets in that series.
Entering the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, many thought that the Nuggets and Thunder were two of the few teams best positioned to fight through a brutal 66-game schedule in 120 days. The theory being that both teams had the three things a team needs to survive this season: youth, height and depth. And yet 30-plus games into this squirrely season, and with both teams beset by injuries to key players, the Thunder have been able to survive handsomely while the Nuggets are treading water.
Of course, it helps when Kevin Durant plays on your team. The reigning scoring champ has seen his points per game drop a bit, but he his averaging career highs in field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and blocks and is giving LeBron James a run for the league MVP award. Proving once again that the NBA is a star-driven league, Durant's Thunder boast the Western Conference's second-best home record and the league's second-best overall record.
In the Thunder's lone home loss, on January 3rd to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Thunder were playing the second of a back-to-back and their third game in four nights. The Blazers took advantage of this by holding Durant to just 19 points on 8-26 shooting, the Thunder overall to just 25% shooting from three-point range and a mere 93 points. Like Denver, the Thunder win games by scoring north of 100 points.
Unfortunately for the Nuggets, they won't be catching the Thunder on a back-to-back or on their third game in four days. The Thunder last played Friday night, at home, and have been in Oklahoma City since Thursday morning. In that Friday game - against the lowly Golden State Warriors - the Thunder easily took care of the Warriors despite having no Kendrick Perkins, no Thabo Sefolosha, a previously ill Durant and losing all-star guard Russell Westbrook to a sprained ankle late in the third quarter. Compare that to Denver's outing against the Warriors 11 days ago in Denver when the Nuggets allowed the Warriors to walk all over them, (even with Nene in the game for Denver) and you can't blame Nuggets fans for lacking confidence heading into Sunday night's game.
To their credit, the Nuggets finally showed some mettle in Friday's thriller at Memphis ... just two days removed from showing no mettle whatsoever at Dallas.
So which Nuggets team will show up at Oklahoma City on Sunday? The one that overcame a horrendous first half at Memphis to almost win that game? Or the one that allowed the Thunder to muscle them around in the playoffs last year?
SCOUTING THE THUNDER
-Kevin Durant: Simply put, Durant is one of the top-three players in the NBA right now alongside LeBron James and Derrick Rose.
-James Harden: I thought the Nuggets' Al Harrington had a great shot at winning the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award ... until I looked closer at Harden's production off the bench. With numbers like Harden's 17.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 3.5 apg - combined with the Thunder's winning ways - Harden is likely a lock for the award.
-Serge Ibaka: Ibaka has become the NBA's blocks leader with 3.0 per game and is an exceptionally efficient offensive player, as well.
-Russell Westbrook: When your team is 11-1 at home and holds the NBA's second-best overall record, you aren't going to find too many Stiffs. And playing-wise, Westbrook certainly isn't one. But his incessant whining with the referees and reckless play haven't garnered him any respect from Nuggets fans.
-Kendrick Perkins: Speaking of getting no respect from Nuggets fans, Perkins almost killed one after Game 4 in Denver last year and yet somehow didn't get a suspension from the league for his post-game actions.
The NBA schedule makers screwed the Nuggets (shocking) by scheduling two of the Nuggets' three games versus the Thunder in Oklahoma City, but the Nuggets must make the most of it and steal one of these two games on the road to regain some confidence on the road.