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Preview: Nuggets host the Thunder for the last time this year

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One team's season is winding down and one is ramping up for the post-season, but the Nuggets hope to have something left to show the division's dominant team with just a few games until the playoffs

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Russell is mad somebody stole his ball.  It's on your right, Russ... your OTHER right...
Russell is mad somebody stole his ball. It's on your right, Russ... your OTHER right...
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder still have big plans for the postseason.  Their stumble against the Houston Rockets aside, this team thinks it should be in the title conversation and wants to prove that the fury of their two-headed hydra can compete against the small ball excellence of the Golden State Warriors and the defensive and passing majesty of the San Antonio Spurs.

The Denver Nuggets are making vacation plans and trying not to get yelled at too much by their coach over the last few games of the longest season half this roster has ever known.  That mission remains in the "not accomplished" column after losing to the Sacramento Kings in their previous game.  Coach Michael Malone was especially irked at being swept by the Kings - the team that unceremoniously fired him - and was frustrated that the Nuggets had no defensive presence on the ball-handler and cannot finish at the rim.  If the Nuggets intend to get out of this season and onto their summer plans without getting lit up by their coach, they'd better rectify those things immediately - or there's another loss in their immediate future.

The Basics:

Who: Oklahoma City Thunder (53-24) at Denver Nuggets (32-46)

When: 7:00 PM MDT

Where: The Can, Denver CO

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

Rival blog: Welcome to Loud City

Oklahoma City Thunder
Denver Nuggets Advantage
PG Russell Westbrook Emmanuel Mudiay Thunder
SG Andre Roberson Gary Harris Nuggets
F Kevin Durant JaKarr Sampson Thunder
F Serge Ibaka Kenneth Faried Thunder
C Steven Adams Nikola Jokic Even
Bench Dion WaitersEnes Kanter, Cam Payne, Kyle SinglerNick CollisonAnthony Morrow, Randy Foye

Darrell Arthur, Will BartonD.J. Augustin, Axel Toupane,, Jusuf Nurkic, Mike MillerJoffrey Lauvergne

Thunder

Injured players: Wilson Chandler - out (hip), Danilo Gallinari - out (ankle), Darrell Arthur - questionable (knee)

Key match up: The Denver Nuggets vs. intestinal fortitude. Malone wasn't kidding in that press conference after the Kings game that I linked in the open.  He called out all of Denver's guards, saying that they didn't have the ability to defend a ball-handler, period.  It wasn't a matter of effort but of talent, and even openly questioned whether Denver needed to go find that talent.  I hope his guards can take that slam to heart in a positive way. Mudiay and Harris are considered by most to be building blocks of the future, but as Malone said: if your guards can't keep people out of the paint and you have very little rim protection, that's tough to overcome.

With that being said, he might want to think about starting Nurkic - since he IS Denver's rim protection and paint presence.  Nobody's going to help D.J. Augustin stop anybody (and it's possible that this is Malone's open plea to Tim Connelly not to give Augustin a contract but rather to get him another defensive guard).  Nurkic could help Harris and Mudiay when they get beat, however - and against Westbrook, they're GOING to get beat.  Denver will need better effort from its guards (and hopefully less bricking overall, and especially from Barton) but it'd be nice if their coach helped give them a backup plan in this one. Especially with Jokic looking timid over the last handful of games.

One thing to watch: can Denver finish? Serge Ibaka had 18 points, 7 rebounds and 5 blocks against Denver in November.  He had 19 points and 3 blocks in December, and just 4 points but 10 rebounds in their last meeting.  Adams had 10 points and 6 boards in the January game to pick up Ibaka's slack and muscle around Denver's interior players.  The Nuggets cannot be afraid of getting inside against the Thunder if they hope to win this game, but Denver is 29th in scoring percentage at the rim this year while getting the most opportunities.  It's not their strong suit.

Durant has scored 20+ in 61 consecutive games.  Westbrook is on a triple-double rampage and is one away from tying Magic's modern-NBA record.  Those guys are going to get theirs.  Denver doesn't have anyone who is a real threat to slow Durant and our guards might as well be fitted with concrete shoes while swimming through molasses for all the good their own coach expects them to do in slowing Westbrook.

Malone might want more defense, but that's going to come from a breakout game from Nurkic and some lucky perimeter D if it happens.  To win, Denver will still have to score, and getting bullied out of the paint is not the way to do that.  In this game the Nuggets will have to do what Malone says can't be done: defend the ball and finish at the rim.

Prediction:  OKC rolls, 114-98. What, am I gonna call Malone an idiot?  He's not wrong that Denver struggles with all these things and Oklahoma City - coming off a blown opportunity against Houston - is going to attack all of Denver's weak areas.  Barton can't throw it in the ocean right now, and Westbrook is going to eat Augustin for breakfast when he's not picking his teeth with Mudiay or even Harris.

Malone needs a good gameplan and had better find a way to fire up a team that lost to half the residents of a New Orleans morgue and a Kings team that has plans to burn its coach in effigy the day the season ends.  It'd be impressive - maybe he's saving his best magic tricks for last.