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Preview: Nuggets vs. Thunder

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Russell Westbrook is on a mission this season, and he leads his troops into the mile high city to take on a wounded Nuggets team Friday night.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

After going 3-1 on their most recent home stand, the Denver Nuggets went into Salt Lake City last Wednesday night on the second night of a back to back. The Utah Jazz had a couple of days to rest up after their loss at Pepsi Center on Sunday, and after losing four in a row, Wednesday night was a must-win. The Nuggets were without their best player in Danilo Gallinari, their best perimeter defender in Gary Harris, and Will Barton remained very hobbled in his second game back from injury.

The Nuggets were blown out. I’m not much for excuses, but it’s reasonable to call it a schedule loss.

Now, the team comes back to Pepsi Center for their first regular season clash with the Oklahoma City Thunder sans Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook was always going to come out firing, but what he has done so far is completely insane. He has posted an absurd 41.2% usage rate through the first 16 games of the season, nearly 3% higher than the all-time single season record set by Kobe Bryant in 2005-06. What’s interesting, and something people don’t talk about enough, is Westbrook holds the second highest single season usage rate, back in 2014-15 when Durant spent most of the season dealing with injuries.

So what we know: Russell Westbrook is going to shoot, and he’s going to shoot a lot. He’s a willing passer to the wide open guy, but he will hoist 30 shots if he feels like he has to tonight. He already averages 23.8 field goal attempts per game, so it won’t be difficult. What will be difficult is stopping him.

The Basics:

Who: Oklahoma City Thunder (8-8) vs. Denver Nuggets (6-9)

When: 7:00 P.M. MST

Where: The Can, Denver CO

How to watch/listen: Altitude TV and KKSE AM 950 Altitude Radio

Rival blog: Welcome to Loud City

Position Denver Oklahoma City Advantage
PG Emmanuel Mudiay Russell Westbrook ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
SG Will Barton Victor Oladipo Thunder
SF Wilson Chandler Andre Roberson Nuggets
PF Kenneth Faried Domantas Sabonis Nuggets
C Jusuf Nurkic Steven Adams Thunder
Bench Jameer Nelson, Jamal Murray, Alonzo Gee, Darrell Arthur, Nikola Jokic, Malik Beasley Semaj Christon, Anthony Morrow, Jeremi Grant, Enes Kanter, Joffrey Lauvergne, Alex Abrines Nuggets

Injured players: Danilo Gallinari - questionable (thigh), Juancho Hernangomez - out (ankle), Mike Miller - out (personal), Gary Harris - out (foot), Cameron Payne - out (foot)

Key Matchup: Victor Oladipo vs Will Barton

If you caught it, I put Oladipo down as having an advantage over Barton. This is two-fold: Oladipo has been very good, and Barton has been gimpy coming back from his ankle injury. Oladipo has averaged 16.8 points and 41.4% from behind the three point line so far this year, and it’s safe to say he’s formed a solid connection with Westbrook. Barton started the year in the starting lineup, and he looked good. Now, he’s shooting a whopping 43.8% from beyond the arc, but just 34.1% inside of it. He’s shot 6/28 from the field since he’s returned, and he’s looked bad doing it.

Now, the Nuggets need Barton to be successful. He has to do his best to neutralize Oladipo while providing a viable option offensively. Emmanuel Mudiay already has notable struggles with efficiency. Both backcourt members can’t be high-volume, low-efficiency if the Nuggets want a chance to win this game. With very little wing depth at this point, he may also need to play some minutes at small forward.

Spotlight on: The Drive and Dish

One of the things that Westbrook has perfected as a player is making quick decisions on his drives. When he goes to the rim, he explodes. There’s very little time for the defense to react, but there’s also very little time for the Brodie to react if the defense is ready. Well, he’s become very cerebral for a 40%+ usage rate guy. His tendency is to always shoot, but he’s able to generate a ton of assists because he’s aggressive to the hoop. With that style of play, lanes open up in the defense for passes to find teammates, and Westbrook generates points for guys like Steven Adams, Domantas Sabonis, and Andre Roberson who can struggle to create for themselves.

This is what I would love to see Emmanuel Mudiay do when he sees a gap in the defense. Explode to the rim and use the physical gifts that got him to this point to create shot opportunities for himself and others. Passive Mudiay certainly doesn’t turn the ball over, but passive Mudiay has struggled to find his fit in the flow of the offense. When Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, or Jameer Nelson have come on to the court, Mudiay has constantly deferred in order to limit mistakes. He limited mistakes against Utah, but there was simply no offensive firepower in the starting lineup, and he couldn’t change his mindset.

From the get go, get downhill Mudiay. It all becomes easier after the main big guy (in this case Steven Adams) gets in foul trouble.

Prediction: Thunder 104 - Nuggets 96

The Thunder are riding a three game losing streak right now, and I very much doubt that they will come out flat tonight. The Nuggets have had noted struggles to begin games, and given the injury issues to key players, it won’t surprise me if they start flat again. The Thunder have been relatively healthy to start the season, and it looks like the injury bug has focused on the Nuggets lately. Jamal Murray should have another solid showing, but the Thunder are simply a matchup nightmare for the Nuggets.

Opening thought: Bias and why it just doesn’t matter

There have been a few comments lately calling me out for being a biased writer. Some have gotten nastier than that, and I won’t go into detail about the things I read, but I will say that there’s a difference between being biased and having an opinion. In basketball, opinions are formed through observation of players, coaches, management, etc., while bias is the inability to appreciate what happens when it flies in the face of someone’s opinion.

I have certainly been guilty of being opinionated, as has everyone on a sports blog, but I don’t claim to be biased. Being biased against a player on the Nuggets would mean rooting against said player to be successful, thus rooting against the team. I am very much in favor of the Nuggets being successful, as is everyone else here. My opinion on how the Nuggets get from point A to point B is likely different than Adam’s opinion, or Jeff’s opinion, or Gordon’s opinion, or any commenter’s opinion. That being said, there are many different ways to get from point A to point B. Please respect them. Critique them as well! That’s why the environment is so great here. Just don’t go overboard.

Have fun tonight guys and gals. I will be in attendance for my first game of the year. Go Nuggets.