April 18, 2011

The first-round series between the Thunder and Nuggets is a matchup between a traditional two-superstar squad and a more balanced model. It's a collision of Northwestern Division quasi-rivals. It's a contrasting look at the structurally fortified Thunder, built up slowly piece by piece, and the post-Carmelo Nuggets, a makeshift playoff team thrown together at the trade deadline. Yet this series is, and will continue to be, marked by the dynamic play of two highly competitive teams. Game 1, which the Thunder won, 107-103, was only the first taste of what's sure to be a remarkable series.

Kevin Durant had a transcendent performance, and in the process pointed out the notable distinction between respectable defense of a superstar and effective defense of a superstar. Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Kenyon Martin all guarded Durant admirably. They contested his pull-up jumper as well as one could expect, and generally made Durant's life difficult by crowding him on offense, limiting his ability to move without the ball, and getting a hand in his face when possible. But Durant was nearly unstoppable, pouring in 41 points on 59 percent shooting from the field. He's the type of scorer than can make decent defense irrelevant; the only limitations on his offensive game are due to the impact of exceptional perimeter defenders (Andre Iguodala, Tony Allen), his own errant stroke, or poor shot selection. That makes the work of defenders like Chandler, Gallinari and Martin somewhat futile, and yet they have no choice but to attempt to defend Durant, even if their efforts are in vain.

• The idea that the Nuggets don't have a true star is a bit misleading, and was debunked in a way when an injury scare put Nene's availability in jeopardy. As well as Chris Andersen played in his 14 minutes of action, this Denver team would be utterly lost without Nene in the lineup. They would not only be punished because of the lack of a capable replacement on the roster, but because Nene is a tremendously gifted player capable of impacting a game like few players in the league (his emphatic 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting in Game 1 against one of the league's top interior defenders stands as good of an example of Nene's impact as any). How many bigs are capable of defending the pick and roll, scoring from the block at an elite rate, cutting to the rim, and defending the post expertly? Given what Nene is able to provide from a scoring, defending, and rebounding perspective -- not to mention the superlative efficiency that makes him even more remarkable -- how is he anything less than a legitimate star?

• As good as Durant and Russell Westbrook were in this game (and they were brilliant), Oklahoma City's victory relied heavily on contributions both obvious and subtle from three of the Thunder's lesser-known players. Nick Collison finished with just two points and a single rebound, but he registered the game's highest plus-minus rating and was a crucial part of three separate Thunder runs. His defense, screen-setting, and passing continue to be important commodities for Oklahoma City, and yet his impact will forever be eclipsed by the more obvious contributions of Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Eric Maynor's impact was a bit more tangible than Collison's, but his point-per-minute scoring in 12 minutes of action gave OKC a huge boost. Toss in the implications that Maynor's pair of three-pointers had in terms of the game's momentum, and was undoubtedly among the Thunders' most crucial contributors. James Harden also played relatively well in his 26 minutes, despite scoring just five points and shooting 1-of-5 from the field. Harden's utility came in his ball-handling and distribution; he was able to trigger some effective play action off the dribble, and assisted a teammate on a three-pointer -- the most effective assist in basketball -- on three occasions. None of these players even remotely nears the impact of Durant or Westbrook, but they were vital contributors that helped to tip the scale in an otherwise balanced game nonetheless.

• The Nuggets don't have many weaknesses; they perform well on both sides of the ball, shoot a solid percentage from the field, keep their turnovers down and hit the glass hard. Yet one can't help but wonder what could have been had Denver converted on any of its 12 missed free-throw attempts. On a single trip down the floor in the second quarter, Nene botched two attempts, Martin secured the rebound only to be fouled, and then missed two attempts of his own. The Nuggets draw fouls at a supreme rate, but the points left at the foul line were damning in Game 1.

• The fourth quarter was marked by questionable decision-making by both teams. George Karl curiously opted to have the Nuggets operate through J.R. Smith for an extended stretch during the final frame, and even when control of the ball shifted back into the hands of Denver's point guards, it remained with Raymond Felton rather than the more effective Ty Lawson. Why Lawson was phased out in the fourth quarter is a mystery (he didn't take a single shot attempt in the fourth, largely because he saw the ball so rarely), but there's no logical reason why the team's most effective ball-handler and playmaker should be made into an on-court spectator when shot creation is more difficult than ever. Denver shot 41 percent from the field and committed four turnovers for the quarter as a result, its worst shooting mark and highest turnover total for any quarter in Game 1.

The Thunder on the other hand largely had Westbrook to blame for the team's fourth-quarter stagnation. After an amazing 21-point first half, Westbrook shot just 4-of-12 the rest of the way. Westbrook often attempted difficult jumpers on a whim, opting to call his own number even as Durant was scoring with ease. If the Thunder had lost, Westbrook would rightfully be widely criticized for his 2-of-6, two-turnover fourth quarter. Durant and Westbrook can play some beautiful basketball together, but they surely aren't immune to these moments of observable clash.

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