It looks like a Thunder-Dallas first-round playoff series. If Denver wins at Minnesota on Thursday night, the Nuggets play the Lakers in the first round, sending the Mavs to Oklahoma City. So is that good news for the Thunder? Probably not. Denver is probably an easier first-round foe than Dallas will be. The experienced Mavs seem to be a thorn in the flesh of the Thunder. But let’s go individually. Which foe would the Thunder players like to see.
KEVIN DURANT: Denver. Durant has played well against the Mavs this season — 26.7 points a game, 48 percent shooting — but Durant lights up the Nuggets. He was great in the playoffs last year against Denver, and in three games this season KD averaged 35.7 points and shot 59 percent. He was above 50 percent shooting in all three games against the Nuggets. Neither team presents a stiff defensive challenge for Durant, unless the Thunder goes small, in which case Durant might have to cover Dirk Nowitzki from time to time.
RUSSELL WESTBROOK: Dallas. The Mavericks play much better defense, which will frustrate Westbrook. In three games against Dallas this season, Westbrook had 15 turnovers and just 11 assists. Against the Nuggets, Westbrook had 11 turnovers but 23 assists. And Westbrook averaged 31 points a game against Denver while shooting 50 percent from the field. Against Dallas, Westbrook averaged 22.3 points a game while shooting 42 percent. But Denver point guard Ty Lawson is hard to cover. Westbrook has done an excellent job of it; Lawson has averaged 17 points against OKC this year. But Lawson can wear you out over a seven-game series. Westbrook is likely to have Jason Kidd or Vince Carter on him some. Sounds like a field day for Westbrook.
JAMES HARDEN: Denver. Seems to be a wash offensively. In three games against the Mavs, Harden averaged 13.7 points and shot 40 percent, both below average. In two games against Denver, Harden averaged about the same — 14.0 points and 35 percent shooting. The difference? Against Dallas, Harden will be matched up against Jason Terry a bunch. Much easier to guard the Nugget backcourt.
SERGE IBAKA: Dallas. Scotty Brooks’ newest defense against Nowitzki — Kendrick Perkins or Nick Collison on Dirk, with Serge free to roam and block shots — paid off wonderfully on Feb. 1. Ibaka had 10 blocks and 11 rebounds. Ibaka averaged 11.3 points against both Dallas and Denver. And though Ibaka had a monster game against the Nuggets in February — a triple double of 11 blocks, 14 rebounds, 15 points — that was before the emergence of rookie power forward Kenneth Faried. Ibaka will fare better against Dallas.
KENDRICK PERKINS: Denver. Gran Torino is up to any challenge, but extended minutes covering Dirk Nowitzki is above and beyond the call of duty.
THABO SEFOLOSHA: Dallas. Thabo’s value — and his minutes — are tied to the caliber of backcourt scorer on the opposing squad. Dallas has Jason Terry; Denver does not. Thabo will be more valuable against the Mavs and thus would play more.
NICK COLLISON: Denver. Same as Perkins. Collison did yeoman’s work trying to defend Nowitzki last season in the Western Conference Finals, but it would make for an easier fortnight if he was chasing one of the Nugget big men.
DEREK FISHER: Dallas. It’s actually a wash. Both teams are tailor-made for a 37-year-old backup point guard. Both have Fisher peers. The Mavs have 39-year-old Jason Kidd, the Nuggets 36-year-old Andre Miller. But Kidd is easier to deal with than Miller, who still can play a mean game.
DAEQUAN COOK: Denver. A shooter like Cook wants to play against teams that are adverse to defense. That’s Denver, not Dallas.
NAZR MOHAMMED: Denver. Nazr’s minutes against the Mavs will be scarce. The Mavs like to go small, which relegates Mohammed to third team.