The early-season Nuggets that could not find a way to compete for four quarters have vanished into mist and even a swath of injuries and playing on a back-to-back could not derail their game attempts at victory. Denver came up short in Oklahoma City, falling 122-112, but it certainly wasn't due to lack of heart. Kenneth Faried led the Nuggets in points (25) and rebounds (11) but no one could slow the assault of Oklahoma City's Big Three, led by Russell Westbrook's 30 points, 12 assists and 9 rebounds. Interior defense was nearly non-existent for both teams as they combined for 134 points in the paint, but in the end Oklahoma City had the horses and the Nuggets did not.
Even so, the Nuggets, on the 2nd day of a back-to-back, were the ones showing the early energy and effort. Faried was banging for extra rebounds while the Nuggets ran off misses and got out to a quick 8-2 lead, all off of paint points. Durant came back with a three but Jameer answered with one of his own. Faried slammed home a pair of dunks and nailed a layup but the Thunder found their own way into the paint for buckets and halfway through the first the Nuggets only led by 4 at 19-15. The Thunder tied it up after a couple of unforced turnovers by Denver but Nelson hit another three to regain the lead. The Nuggets just couldn't keep Oklahoma City out of the paint though - a theme that would continue all night- and missed shots by Denver put the Thunder on a 14-3 run for a 28-22 lead. The Nuggets fought back on a furious 7-2 run by their bench players, led by Barton, to close to 32-31 at the end of the first.
Both Durant and Westbrook were out to start the second quarter. Will Barton and Nikola Jokic kept the Nuggets trading the lead back and forth with Oklahoma City, leaving the game at 43-42 in favor of OKC when Durant came back in. The Nuggets and Thunder traded misses for a couple of minutes until Barton nailed another three. Nelson's free throws extended the Nugget lead to 48-43, but Westbrook answered with a 3. Even with OKC's good shooting - they shot 57.9% from the field in the first half - the Nuggets kept attacking the paint and rim buckets by Faried and Lauvergne bounced the lead back to eight. Thee Nuggets finished the quarter shooting 7-of-10 and up by 8, 61-53 behind 16 points from Will Barton, 14 from Faried and 11 by Jameer Nelson.
The second half started with the largest halftime lead for Denver ever at Oklahoma City. Kostas Papanikolaou banked in a three for his only points of the game to push the lead to 11. The Nuggets then went cold from distance as the Thunder pulled to within 6 at 67-61. Kenneth and Joffrey led the fight inside even though neither could stop the paint barrage from OKC. The Thunder retook the lead finally at 78-77 on Durant's 3, after which the Nuggets and Thunder exchanged threes and Harris rustled up a steal to put Denver in front again. The story of the quarter was Denver's inability to stop OKC's offensive assault (61.3% from the field through 3 quarters) and Denver went into the 4th quarter down 91-90 despite Jokic's great tip in at the buzzer. Oklahoma City had 38 points in the quarter and Michael Malone went into the fourth looking for any way to slow the offensive machine of the Thunder.
OKC opened the 4th with a 3-pointer after a Nuggets turnover. Denver settled for jumpshots early in the quarter and missed them until Barton's 3 with 10 minutes to go, and Nelson slashing layup gave Denver the lead back at 95-94. The Nuggets and Thunder traded the lead back and forth until the Thunder re-inserted their starters and punctuated their lead with a monster Kanter dunk over Jokic. Neither Joffrey nor Jokic handled Kanter's muscle for that stretch as Kanter sank a couple of free throws for a 103-97 OKC lead. Westbrook and Ibaka stretched it to 107-99 with some at-the-rim ferocity. Harris hit a 3 out of a timeout and the Nuggets kept fighting down the stretch to close it to 3 on Faried's offensive rebound of his own miss with three minutes to go, but from there it stagnated for the visiting team. The Nuggets were unable to get a necessary stop down the stretch as OKC pushed the lead back to 9, after which Will Barton and Steven Adams got into a brief scuffle. OKC ended the game on a 11-4 scoring run punctuated by a Westbrook one-handed dunk that closed out the Nuggets for a final score of 122-112.
Faried was both a reason the Nuggets stayed in this game and a reason why they lost. His energy was great, his relentless assault on the rim key to the Nuggets getting the lead in the first place and having it even in the fourth quarter. I love seeing Kenneth decide he wants to be unstoppable. On the other hand, Enes Kanter still destroyed Denver to the tune of 21 points on 7-of-8 field goals to go along with his 8 rebounds. Kanter completely nullified all of Kenneth's contributions and while that's not necessarily all Faried's fault (neither Jokic nor Lauvergne could stop him either) Faried being the smallest and least-skilled defensive big man on the court didn't help. Denver might have gotten blown out without Faried out there, but they also might have been able to win the last 3 minutes if they had a big man who could defend the paint and knew his assignments. Coach Malone is going to have to find a way to unleash the Manimal when the Nuggets need him and still make sure that Faried's weaknesses do not become Denver's when the game is on the line. When Nurkic returns, Malone will have an interesting balancing act to maintain there with all of his big men needing minutes. Keeping Faried's great highs and mitigating his lows is crucial.
The Nuggets have to get other people to the free throw line when Gallinari is out. The Nuggets shot just 15 free throws, led by Harris's 4 shots from the charity stripe. They had one of their better shooting nights of the year thanks to their efforts in the paint, but that's not enough when playing a scoring juggernaut like Oklahoma City.. Denver attacked the paint when it was open - and it was open a lot tonight - but whenever the Thunder did close it off the Nuggets did not challenge it. I would like to see Denver more willing to initiate contact instead of always being on the receiving end. The Nuggets are getting a reputation for soft play that can be countered if they are willing to drive through that contact instead of getting pushed to the perimeter. It's really hard to critique a team with 66 paint points by saying they didn't do enough work in the paint, but if that's where the Nuggets need to work to succeed then they need to refuse to allow other teams to push them out. It's that simple.
The defense should improve when Denver is healthy, as should the wins. The effort is there, and that's half the battle on defense. The Nuggets simply have no force on the inside and no idea what to do when explosive teams can get in the paint. Gallinari and Mudiay both worked out tonight, so the injury parade might lessen as soon as January 2nd. This shortened squad is really giving it all they have, though, just as Michael Malone has implored them to do - and that bodes well for the future. There are no moral victories, but there are learning experiences, and for a team in a learning year that's all one can hope for. Jokic has earned his coach's trust, Harris is playing like a legit starting 2 guard, Lauvergne is still growing his game even through mistakes and setting career highs. Will Barton leads the league in bench points. The Nuggets young players are all having good growing seasons, but the kind of defense that Malone wants them to play is not easy to master if the cast of characters keeps changing every game. A nice stretch of health to go with all of this Denver effort should make a world of difference.
Yes, tonight was a loss, but an encouraging one. These Nuggets haven't quit as the season has gotten harder and the roster has gotten lighter. The New Year with an easier schedule and expanded healthy roster will be a great boon to Nuggets basketball. In the meantime, enjoy the effort. Denver is laying it out there for all to see, and that's a testament to Malone's coaching too.