A closer look at the Denver-OKC first-round matchup

Battle between fourth and fifth seeds close in all aspects

As Northwest Division rivals whose coaches worked together for 132 games, there’s very little that the Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder don’t know about one another.

That familiarity is likely to breed plenty of contempt during a best-of-seven playoff series that will start Sunday in Oklahoma City.

“We have a lot of people that know each other,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “The secrets of the series are going to be gone pretty quick. It’s just going to be, ‘Let’s go beat each other up and see who wins.’ ”

The Thunder, coached by former Denver assistant Scott Brooks, won the season series 3-1 but the Nuggets aren’t lacking for confidence after winning 19 of their final 25 games to reach 50 wins for the fourth consecutive season.

“I think what we have right now is a team that respects our opponent but we don’t have a lot of fear of our opponent,” Karl said.

Here is an in-depth look at how the teams match up heading into a series that promises to be fast-paced and physical:

The Breakdown: Karl is considering starting pass-first point guards Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton together, which could present matchup problems for the Oklahoma City backcourt of All-Star Russell Westbrook and Thabo Sefolosha. Westbrook likes to use his size and speed to attack the paint, so look for Denver to try to keep him on the perimeter and make him settle for jump shots. Sefolosha is a strong defender but also has limited range on the perimeter (27.5 percent from three-point range). If the Nuggets decided to go with a more traditional lineup, Arron Afflalo will line up alongside Lawson. Afflalo brings defensive skill and an accurate three-point shot; he finished eighth in the NBA in three-point percentage (.423).

The Breakdown: The Oklahoma City offense starts with Westbrook, but it runs through reigning two-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant, who presents a matchup nightmare because of his ability to knock down three-pointers and get to the foul line. Only Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin attempted more free throws than Durant, who averaged 31.5 points in four games against the Nuggets this season. Power forward Serge Ibaka provides a good complement to Durant because he’s a strong rebounder and shot-blocker. The Nuggets counter with power forward Kenyon Martin, who will try to frustrate Durant with his physical style and athleticism. Denver could start steady Wilson Chandler at small forward or go big with Danilo Gallinari. Both bring balance at both ends.

The Breakdown: The most intriguing matchup of the series might be in the trenches, where Nuggets center Nene and Oklahoma City center Kendrick Perkins will battle for every inch of space. Perkins has given the Thunder added toughness since being traded from Boston to OKC in February. Nene got a first-hand look at Perkins’ bullying style when the two went nose-to-nose at the Pepsi Center on April 5. Nene led the NBA in field-goal percentage (.615) and averaged 14.5 points, while Perkins isn’t much of a threat at the offensive end (6.0 ppg).
ADVANTAGE: Nuggets (offense), Thunder (defense)

The Shot: With a playing rotation that often goes 10 deep, Denver’s reserves should be nicknamed the Mariana Trench. Anchored by shooting guard J.R. Smith, big man Chris Andersen and forward Al Harrington, the Nuggets finished fifth in the NBA in bench scoring. Depending on who starts, Karl also has some combination of Chandler, Felton or Gallinari to turn to as well, often giving Denver starting-caliber talent on the court at all times. The Thunder have a talented sixth man in James Harden (12.2 ppg) and a change-of-pace point guard in Eric Maynor. Big men Nick Collison and Nazr Mohammed bring energy and rebounding to the floor but little on offense.

The Shot: With 1,036 career regular-season victories and 74 playoff wins Karl is in pursuit of his first NBA championship in 23 NBA seasons. Karl crafted one of his finest coaching jobs this season, guiding the Nuggets to their eighth straight playoff appearance despite numerous injuries and the circumstances surrounding the Carmelo Anthony trade. He also has a renewed passion after watching the playoffs from home while recovering from throat cancer last spring. To get out of the first round, Karl will have to defeat his former assistant Brooks, the 2009-10 NBA Coach of the Year. The 45-year-old Brooks has developed a strong relationship with his young stars and put together back-to-back 50-win seasons, but he still has to tackle the challenge of winning a playoff series.

PREDICTION:Coaching and the high altitude prove to be the difference as the Nuggets steal a game in Oklahoma City and hold on for a 4-2 series win.

Aaron Lopez
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Aaron's full bio...