That was a relief.
After starting off fast and furious, the Denver Nuggets offense slowed and their defense slacked off, twice letting the Oklahoma City Thunder back into the game. A better team might have made the Nuggets pay, but the Thunder didn't have enough firepower to pull off the comeback.
There were a few interesting takeaways from a game, and one could notice the glaring issues and the encouraging signs alike.
The Ty Lawson/Timofey Mozgov combo
I'm tired of saying it, but Ty Lawson (15 points, 15 assists) is the straw that stirs this teams' drink. The Nuggets couldn't do anything offensively when he was on the bench. Timofey Mozgov (17 points, 7 rebounds, 36 minutes) is beginning to put in his bid for an "invaluable" spot as well.
Both players showed their value right out the gate. Ty Lawson's penetration opened the paint for easy Mozgov buckets. There was a lot of Mozgov early, he's was very active rolling to the paint and even passing from the high post. Shaw had him involved in a lot of pick and rolls.
I like Mozgov's passing out of the high post, in particular a nifty little pass to a cutting Wilson Chandler (who had a sneaky good game himself). Mozgov's improving mid-range game wasn't on display, but package that with some high post passing and you're developing a secret weapon.
Mozgov was also active in the paint (3 blocks) constantly keeping the Thunder outside the paint and swarming them inside it. Reggie Jackson (16 points, but 5-20 FG) couldn't do anything inside, and as the primary ballhandler for OKC, this stifled their offense.
Starters vs. Bench
The bench again struggled after a great start by the starters. Coming in for the starters at the beginning of the second quarter almost immediately stagnated Denver's offensive. Without a point guard running the show, the Nuggets resorted to a lot of isolation jumpers. Nate Robinson did hit two big three pointers with about 6 minutes left that seemed to slow the bleeding, but their defense was just subpar.
Oklahoma City finally started getting into the paint, particularly with simple interior passes. Kendrick Perkins worked JaVale McGee on the boards. The second unit's energy level dropped off drastically, the Thunder simply got the shots they wanted, even when they were not readily converting them.
After a late time out, the second unit picked up the energy on the defensive end, which lead to a couple easy baskets.
Wilson Chandler (21 points, 9 rebounds, 3-6 from three) was great on cutting, leaking out on the fast break, moving into open space, and generally creating havoc on defense. Arron Afflalo (13 points, 1-6 from three) struggled from outside, but converted his open feeds off of Lawson penetration. Kenneth Faried (8 points, 10 rebounds) never got on track offensively, but he did attack the boards in the second half, helping Denver stay afloat.
If the bench can get some steady point guard play (not a knock on Nate Rob, but he needs to be off the ball), and something from Danilo Gallinari (4 points), this can be a dangerous team.
Defense is the key
You saw a lot of long range bombs from an out-of-sync Oklahoma City, because Denver was active at defending the paint, though the Thunder's lack of creators off the bounce is helping that cause.
It's too bad that that defensive behavior wasn't consistent throughout. Faried let Serge Ibaka (22 points, 13 rebounds) convert off the dribble, in open space, and from three. The Nuggets were trapping the ball handler hard on the pick-and-roll, but their recovery was slow and the Thunder got to the line because of it. They also got killed on the boards in the first half as OKC had eight second chance points, in the first half.
Even with all that, the Nuggets energy and effort on the defensive end pushed a five-point halftime lead to 11 in the first three minutes of the third quarter and 16 by the beginning of the fourth.
Then the laziness reared its ugly head one last time when the Thunder chopped the lead down to three with under three minutes left. The Nuggets nailed two threes and though OKC had chances, the Nuggets did well to contest those shots when it mattered most.
I wish I could say that this win inspires confidence, but that's not 100% true. It just shows us what we already know: That the Nuggets have the ability to win with a fast paced offense and a high energy defense, but for some reason they can't maintain it.
They performed when it matters, and in the end that's what is important. That's what we should focus on. There is no shame in beating the bottom feeders and squeaking out wins against some high profile opponents.
Now maintain this identity and at least we can hope for something greater.