After a needlessly overwrought season that seemed to start all the way back in July with LeBron James' "Decision," the playoffs are finally here. After months of waiting, we're at a point where we don't have to qualify every on- or off-court decision with the caveat that reminds us that we're not yet at playoff time. No, we're at playoff time. It's the freakin' playoffs, cats and kittens, and I can hear your goosebumps popping from here. Gross.
In the final episode before the first round hits, we feature the Oklahoma City Thunder and Denver Nuggets.
I have a bad feeling about this series.
It has all the flash and thunder-fire that NBA junkies love, loads of depth and plenty of kids and all sorts of names that Mark Jackson hasn't heard of, but I fear that we're going to be disappointed. What should be a classic seven-gamer built around two very deep teams clashing using high-octane running offenses and ever-improving defenses could be a one-sided affair due to injuries on the Denver end and superior talent on Oklahoma City's side.
And while we still might get a litany of games that are too close to call until the final minute, Oklahoma City just seems better in every regard. This just smacks of all the nearly great playoff series' we see where the hometown team takes a tough Game 3, only to suffer a heartbreaking close one in Game 4, effectively ending the series as it shifts back to their opponent's house, down 3-to-1.
I hope I'm wrong, but though the team's schedule down the stretch does give you pause, it should be noted that Oklahoma City's offense was absolutely lights out over the last month or so of the season. This isn't just Kendrick Perkins flexing and pushing, this is less Jeff Green, more James Harden, and a whole lot of Serge Ibaka with his noise an inch away from the rim.
Can Denver hang? I think so. The Nuggets weren't exactly blown out by the Thunder in their two meetings on April 5 and April 8, but the Thunder did beat George Karl's group by a combined 22 points. I respect the turnaround that we've seen in Denver since the Carmelo Anthony trade, and while the Nuggets have done well in taking down some big boys with some unrelenting depth, what happens when they run into a team that's just as deep as them, with superior talent?
I'll tell you.
My pick? Thunder in five games.
Kelly Dwyer's Hopeful Hashtag
Welcome back to "PLAAAAAAAAAAYOFFS!" It's that time of year again, sports fans! This postseason, who will survive and thrive? Who will spit the bit? And who's going to come up with a third thing that rhymes?
Here to give you their made-up takes on the key X-factors, O-multiples and Zeeman effects of Thunder/Nuggets are 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center-turned-celebrity motivational speaker Mark Eaton and 310-year veteran/olde-tyme crustbucket Ol' Man Howard!
Ol' Man Howard: Begin discussing Oklahoma City and Denver.
Mark Eaton: Shotblocking, running, beards, tattoos, smiles and George Karl. Honestly: What more could you ask for in a series?
OMH: Mayhap some relief from this Bronze John that's ailed me of late, but sport surely can't soothe all afflictions.
ME: Oh, I beg to differ. Watching Russell Westbrook and Ty Lawson run has been known to straighten the crooked spine and cool the fevered brow. At my seminars, I meet a lot of rudderless guys and gals -- just regular, everyday folks that want to be happy but might not have the most get-up-and-go in the world. I'll tell them, "Hey, it's like I always say: Energy and persistence conquer all things." And then sometimes they say, "Wasn't it actually Benjamin Franklin who said that?" And then I'll say, "Security!" and say they tried to touch me in a manner that made me feel unsafe.
OMH: You indeed preside over a dark carnival.
ME: The point being, these are two teams with an abundance of energy, but when it comes to persistence …
OMH: A fine name for your first-born daughter.
ME: … I believe Oklahoma City's got more in store than Denver does. Thunder in 7.
OMH: There, we agree. Importing scowls did the Okies a world of good. Thunder in 6.
(Editor's note: SHOCKER! Dan's got the Nuggets in 6.)
Eric Freeman's Reputation Index
The regular season counts, but the postseason is where reputations are made. Tracy McGrady never won a playoff series and will always be seen as a disappointment. Derek Fisher lacks several fundamental basketball skills but will always be seen as a champion because he makes big shots when it counts. Chauncey Billups owes his entire nickname to the 2004 playoffs. The point being that playoff performance skews national perception of NBA players beyond all reason. In that vein, behold the BDL Reputations Index, your guide to what's at stake for the top names in the first round.
Kevin Durant: Six months ago, Kevin Durant was the toast of the NBA world for his dominant performance at the world championships and the simple fact that he was a superstar who didn't seem to relish the limelight quite as much as the dastardly LeBron James. He was all but anointed as the People's Champion. Durant had another stellar year on his way to becoming the scoring champion for the second year in a row, but he didn't make anything close to the leap he experienced in 2009-10. That's fine, but it's possible to imagine a first-round exit at the hands of the Nuggets acting as the first hint of a coming backlash against Durant and his squeaky-clean image. Win in convincing fashion, and fans may start looking ahead to a Durant/Rose Finals battle for the title of NBA Golden Boy.
Russell Westbrook: If Durant didn't become a transcendent talent this year, then it may only be because both he and Westbrook couldn't possibly have both taken evolutionary steps in the same season. Because, after becoming more than just an erratic presence last season, Westbrook has become a legitimate star talent likely to team with Durant for a seriously imposing duo in OKC. However, there are times when Westbrook seems to dominate the ball too much, looking for his own shot when he should be trying to get Durant and others involved. If the Thunder lose because Westbrook appears too selfish, there may be some question as to whether he's a good fit for Durant. If he can lead the Thunder to a deep run, he may become a superstar in his own right.
George Karl: With more than 25 seasons as a head coach, Karl currently teeters on the brink of becoming seen as one of the best coaches of his era. The only thing keeping him is that his best teams have had some kind of major flaw: the Sonics' Finals squad is generally said to have tuned him out a few years later; his best Bucks team gets the same rap; and the conference finalist Nuggets group of '08-'09 didn't come close to reaching the same heights the next two season.
If these Nuggets can top the Thunder, or even just take the series to six or seven, Karl will have achieved something that no one can argue with. Whenever a team of semi-stars bands together with little interest in points-per-game averages or becoming The Man, the coach receives most of the credit. And while this Denver squad will never be called his best or most talented team, it will probably go down in history as the best-coached roster Karl ever dealt with. It may not be enough to make him a legend, but he'll at least have a signature bit of coaching.
Nene: For several seasons, Nene has been an advanced-stats favorite for his efficient play and solid contributions in every major aspect of the game. Still, he usually toils in obscurity, rarely standing as a widely discussed All-Star choice. Now free from the shadow of Carmelo Anthony, Nene has a chance to be the Nuggets' best player in the series and get mainstream attention. If he succeeds against an acclaimed defender in Kendrick Perkins, you may see Nene become a star among non-obsessive observers of the game.
My pick? The Thunder in six games.