This is becoming a terrible habit.
For the fifth time this season, the Denver Nuggets have led late in the fourth quarter only to give up the lead and ultimately lose the game. Tonight it was at the hands of Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, who came back from down 11 with just under four minutes to go in the contest. Denver managed to tie it but in overtime could not gain any momentum as the Thunder ran away with the victory. Westbrook was a one man show in the fourth, finishing the game with 36 points, 12 rebounds and 18 assists.
With all the injuries the starting lineup saw the addition of Wilson Chandler at SF and Jameer Nelson at SG. Both teams came out hot and pretty much traded baskets throughout the first quarter, and both finished shooting above 50% from the field during that frame. For the Nuggets Jameer Nelson was aggressive and controlled the offense, scoring a few times and dishing out two assists including one in a huge alley-oop to Wilson Chandler. Victor Olalidpo set the tone for Oklahoma City, hitting some big shots and finishing the quarter with nine points. Michael Malone was generous with his substitutions early, as nine of the ten available Nuggets saw the floor in the first quarter as Denver finished down by one, 31-30.
Emmanuel Mudiay hit a big three to start the second quarter, then on the ensuing possessions attacked the paint with his aggressiveness being rewarded with free throws on one drive and an easy layup on the other. The Nuggets continued to flow offensively, going on an 8-0 run before Domantas Sabonis broke the dry spell. Nurkic blocked a layup attempt by Westbrook into oblivion, but soon Denver failed to convert on multiple possessions and a three by Oladipo put Oklahoma City right back in the game. From there each team went on a run, first Denver led by Mudiay, Faried and Chandler then a counter from the Thunder from Oladipo and ex-Nugget Joffrey Lauvergne. At half, Denver had taken the lead 63-62.
The Nuggets came out strong again in the second half with some dunks by Faried and Nurkic and another Mudiay three, but Oklahoma City was right with them trading baskets. Westbrook began heating up and hit a three of his own while otherwise facilitating the Thunder offense. The two teams continued to draw back and forth, but Denver was able to pull slightly ahead right at the end off of a huge Jokic three, 89-84.
The final quarter started off relatively slow save for a nice cut from Murray who was hit by Jokic for an easy backdoor layup. Everyone in Nuggets Nation had a heart attack when off an attempted dunk Murray took a huge fall and remained on the ground for several minutes. Fortunately he was able to get up on his own accord, knock down the free throws and not only remain in the game but contribute with a three from Castle Rock.
The good guys were able to pull away off of some good defensive possessions and held an 11 point lead with just a few minutes to go, but of course Westbrook wouldn’t go without a fight. He exploded for eight straight to put Oklahoma City within two with just under two minutes left. Out of a timeout, Jameer Nelson drained a three-pointer but in a matter of seconds Oladipo hit a jumper, stole the ball for a layup, and then Westbrook hit a jumper to give the Thunder the lead. Oklahoma City wouldn’t look back, but with just seconds left and down by three Jamal freaking Murray was foolishly fouled on a three-point attempt, then like a man drained all three free-throws to send it to overtime.
Jerami Grant and Wilson Chandler traded buckets to start the extra period, then Westbrook drew a foul before Chandler hit another shot to tie it. The rest of overtime was sloppy, with points being scored at the free throw line. Both Steven Adams and Murray each missed free throws, and for a long time the score remained 129-127 in favor of Oklahoma City. Ultimately, the Thunder were able to hit their free throws and they held on for the win.
Thoughts from the game:
As the guards go, the Nuggets go. This seems to be one of the themes this year, doesn’t it? The three players who needed to step up the most tonight did, and they made it look (mostly) easy. Mudiay came out ready to play and was aggressive from the start, playing big in the first half to get the team going. He was attacking the paint, finding the open man and hitting big shots. Mudiay had multiple three-pointers and was once again able to limit his turnovers which is a very positive sign moving forward.
Jameer Nelson played fantastic tonight. He finished with 21 points and 13 assists and overall did a great job facilitating the offense. He took his usual share of suspect shots, but in terms of production he absolutely did his job.
Finally, it doesn’t need to be said, but Jamal Murray is the man. He finished with 20 points and seven rebounds, hit the biggest free throws of his career to send it to OT and provided an energy off the bench that really got the team going. He is growing up quick and is without a doubt the future of this team.
An actual closer must be on Denver’s Christmas list. The main difference between the Thunder and Nuggets tonight was Russell Westbrook. The Nuggets have several great players - Chandler dropped 30 tonight and five players were in double-digits, but no one has the capability to will the team to a win the way Westbrook did. Murray is a likely candidate to be that guy in the future, but it probably won’t happen this season.
Injuries are the worst. Tonight was an amazing effort from a team missing three of its best players. This loss certainly sucks, but to even be in such a close game without Gallinari, Harris and Barton is a very good sign. This team has all the right tools to be great and when the effort is there they can play with anyone, but the difference maker this season will be the team’s health. Let’s just hope those guys can get back soon and stay on the court.