What seemed imminent since the beginning of the month is official: The Nuggets and Thunder will do battle in the first round of the playoffs. The fun starts on Sunday and all signs point to a fistfight -- either in competitiveness or actual throwing of fists; Nenê and Kendrick Perkins got in each others' face in both of the teams' meetings last weekend. There are a lot of aspects of this series to consider, but the central question is this: Can the Nuggets deep cast of contributors overcome the Thunder's two stars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?
In many ways, the Nuggets are the anti-playoff team. In the post season, the pace slows down, defense shines and rotations shorten. Denver averages the third most possessions per game in the league, scores more points per game than any other team and plays ten players sixteen minutes or more per game. Most teams play seven or eight players in the post season.
The Thunder achieve similar results to the Nuggets -- elite offense, middle of the pack in defense and rebounding -- but it gets there a different way. Oklahoma City plays seven players 21 minutes or more and almost everything offensively runs through Durant or Westbrook.
Oklahoma City has two of the top ten players in the league, while Denver doesn't have one in the top 25. While that's a nice luxury for the Thunder to have, if one star has an off night, the team's in trouble. If a key Nugget struggles, in contrast, one of five players can step up in his place.
Ready for some nerdy basketball stats? Thought so. According to basketballreference.com, the Nuggets score 112.3 points and give up 107.2 per each hundred possessions, while the Thunder score 111.3 and allow 107.2 per hundred possessions. The Nuggets have a higher assist rate, which measures how many possessions end in an assist. The Thunder has a higher rebounding rate, which measures how many missed shots a team grabs.
I like numbers. I prefer to deal in facts rather than trying to measure "grit," "hustle" and other intangible bullshit. But no matter how many stats you sift through between these two teams, you will invariably come to the same conclusion: These are two good, even teams. Denver is 18-7 since dealing Carmelo Anthony and Oklahoma City is 19-6 since bringing Perkins over from Boston.
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Unfortunately for those a mile high, the Thunder have a few factors in its favor. One is home-court advantage. That normally doesn't matter that much in the NBA, but Oklahoma City has arguably the loudest fans in the league. The second is the recent memory of convincingly beating the Nuggets twice in one week. And the third is that the Thunder will have the two best players on the court whenever it chooses.
In a game with only five players, those numbers speak volumes.
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