Game 6 of the preseason provided plenty of highlights. Unfortunately for Denver Nuggets fans, far too many of them were the Oklahoma City Thunder abusing Denver inside the paint. Regulars Jameer Nelson, Kenneth Faried and Gary Harris were all sitting, so the Nuggets brought a mixture of rotation players and back ups to face a Thunder team that was performing their dress rehearsal for the regular season and thus played heavy minutes for their stars. Similar to their game against the Golden State Warriors, Denver proved resilient when faced with the sheer talent of their opponent. Russel Westbrook recorded a nice double double (17pts, 12 asts) and Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka both provided solid contributions on the offensive end. The Nuggets countered with the combination of Emmanuel Mudiay and Danilo Gallinari, who combined for 38 pts. However, unlike the Golden State game, Denver was unable to overcome their early deficit and ultimately would end up losing the game.
The first quarter opened up with a nice play for Danilo Gallinari to hit a long two off a screen. Denver took the lead 2-0, which I only bring up because it wound up being the only lead the Nuggets would have the entire game. Perhaps for the first time this preseason, the absence of Jusuf Nurkic was very evident. The Thunder got to the basket at will as Joffrey Lauvergne and Nikola Jokic got exposed as poor interior defenders. Despite the barrage, the Nuggets were able to keep it close thanks mainly to the efforts of Gallo and Mudiay, who were showing some nice chemistry with one another. Mudiay still had some rookie jitters, getting lost on offense at times and making poor decisions that led to turnovers, but he attacked with a nice mixture of drives to the hoop and step back jumpers.
In the second quarter the Nuggets fought back to tie the game at 45, mainly behind an off the bench scoring binge from Erick Green. Green showed off his #1 skill by delivering in several isolation plays and also hit a couple of threes. Unfortunately, Russel Westbrook would return to the game and continue to facilitate for the Thunder, nearly racking up his double double in the first half. Coupled with Durant having a very Durant like performance (23 pts on 14 shots), Denver still found themselves trailing at the half. The third quarter started with Mudiay creating for himself once again, keeping Denver close. Despite this, the Thunder provided a reality check for the Nuggets. For every rookie mistake Mudiay or Jokic or Lauvergne (still a rookie in my book) made, Durant or Westbrook or Ibaka casually went about making Denver pay. Additionally, Enes Kanter (18 pts 11 rebs) showed why Jokic still has a ways to go on the defensive end, as Kanter abused him down low to get easy points.
By the time the mid fourth quarter had rolled around Denver was far from striking distance and the backups for Oklahoma City mopped up. Despite the loss there was still reason to be optimistic in Denver. Mudiay flashed several times on the night and defensive struggles aside, Jokic showed his nice foot work in post on a couple of occasions. Jokic and Lauvergne got some time on the court together and showed how they can be a lethal combo on offense as they both can serve as playmaking bigs. Their defense though will be an issue.
Three things Gordon told me to watch for:
1) Health - Denver nearly escaped with a full with an A+ in this category. Gary Harris and Randy Foye joined Oleisky Pecherov and Jusuf Nurkic as no shows on the score card, but Mudiay, Jokic, Nick Johnson, Gallinari and Darrell Arthur (first game this preseason) all logged minutes despite their appearance on the injury report. I say they almost get an A+ because Jokic appeared to suffer a shoulder injury at the very end of the game. Seriously, they should just not let him play the last five minutes of any more preseason games given what happened tonight and Friday against Phoenix.
2) The return of the OKC big three - This one loomed large. Denver had no answer for the Thunder stars. With no interior presence Westrook got to the lane at will and when Denver's defense collapsed he found Durant and Ibaka for easy jumpers. Additionally, Kanter and Steven Adams proved to be too much for the Nuggets interior defenders as the Thunder racked up 52 pts in the paint. Perhaps the most discouraging part about it was how effortless it seemed for the Thunder to control the game from start to finish, it goes to show how far Denver has to go before they can be considered a contender.
3) 15th man competition - Chalk up the second victory in a row for Green on this one. Johnson unfortunately didn't have his shot going and was the victim of several in and outs on the way to a 1-7 night shooting. Meanwhile Green poured in 16pts in 25 minutes and provided a nice spark off the bench, especially in the second quarter. I've been a big advocate of the theory that Green and Johnson are completely redundant so you might as well keep Johnson since that's the cheaper way to go. We're talking the last guy on the bench after all. Yet, Green put on display tonight the precise difference between him and Johnson which is Green has a true NBA level skill in his scoring ability. Johnson just feels like a warm body, he doesn't really do anything really well, but he does a mixture of things decent enough to make a case for him to be on the roster. Green doesn't have much going for him other than his ability to score but when he gets it going he's like a poor man's Allen Iverson. Ultimately that might be more valuable than a guy who plays just well enough to grab a roster spot.
Other notes -
- Arthur's first appearance in the preseason was ultimately forgettable, but coach Malone did utilize him at the center position for a portion of the night, which is more than can be said about J.J. Hickson who logged a DNP-CD.
- Free throws really hurt Denver tonight as they shot just over 65%.
- Mudiay struggled again when faced with heavy ball pressure, often times causing him to make a poor turnover.
- Lauvergne is going to have to watch the fouls. He racked up four in the first half. Not a big deal in the pre-season but with Nurkic out, Denver can't afford to not have Lauvergne available.
- Having Kenneth Faried, who got the night off to rest, would have helped a lot. Offensive rebounds were an issue for Denver as Kanter and Adams combined for 7.
- Possibly the only thing worse than the free throw shooting was the 3pt shooting. The Nuggets shot just 26% from beyong the arc
Box score via ESPN.com
Zach's final thought:
Above all, despite the loss, it was still a fairly positive game for the Nuggets. The team hung tough for the most part and if you add in Nurkic, Faried, Nelson (rest) and Harris to the lineup this game could have gone very differently. Hopefully Jokic's shoulder is fine as he continued to show how he can be a major threat on offense. Oh yeah, and that Mudiay kid...he's pretty good (special thanks to An Nguyen for the clip).