Oklahoma City showed the Denver Nuggets just how far they have to go toward being competitive in the Western Conference, taking a 30-point lead into the fourth quarter and coasting to a 124-102 finish. Russell Westbrook got his 17th double-double on the season (and third against Denver this season) and Kevin Durant had 26 points, 5 rebounds and 8 assists in 29 minutes. Serge Ibaka had 18 easy points and Dion Waiters matched that effort as the Thunder shot 15-for-33 from beyond the arc and had 32 assists on the night in a display of pure aggressive basketball and the rewards that come from sharing the ball and still attacking the rim like it's prey and the whole team wants to eat.
Emmanuel Mudiay had 15 points but more turnovers than assists, Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic had 5 fouls between them in the first 8 minutes of the game and Will Barton still couldn't throw it in the ocean, but the particulars of the game aren't really important for the Nuggets. Instead of what lies behind, let's talk about what lies ahead.
The Oklahoma City are not the team that the Nuggets are trying to build. Westbrook is a demon on the court, an Ifrit that blows from side to side setting every step ablaze. His mistakes (five turnovers) are purified in that fire as he torches everything between him and the basket. Durant is Neptune, who can unleash torrents to drown and destroy or simply still the seas and let you perish, adrift and alone. Backed by their fearsome bodyguard Ibaka and a cast of lesser lights, that pair of gods dares a team to slow them, let alone stop them.
The Nuggets have nothing like that on their roster yet. Mere mortals are they, men who cannot walk on air or fire lightning from the sky. When the Thunder went up 68-51 at halftime, Denver played the role of Sisyphus watching the boulder roll back downhill and trudging back to get it. It was 107-77 at the start of the fourth. When the gods took their seat with 10 minutes left it was a mercy.
No, the Nuggets are not trying to build the Thunder - but they do have to learn to beat them. To put together a band of heroes not afraid of gods who together can overcome the entire pantheon of the NBA since they are unlikely to add any of the current deities to their roster. Coach Michael Malone either has not had the talent or cannot find the schemes to contain greatness on other squads this year. Some of it is raw players; heroes are made, not born, and losing is a crucible to refine greatness from the dross. The Thunder won 20 games in Durant's rookie year and 23 with both Durant and Westbrook together for the first time. It does take time, and Malone has said recently that Denver cannot skip steps on the path to contention. The kids have to grow up, and be willing to take on the mantle of god-slayers.
The organization can help them by adding a Hercules to the quest for the Golden Fleece when possible, but no amount of frustration from the organization or players can suddenly lift one of the youngest sets of core players in the league into sudden greatness. Greatness is earned. In the gym, in the film room, in work-filled offseasons and daily preparation. Greatness doesn't come when called, but comes out when called upon.
The Nuggets hope they have greatness already innate in their roster. They hope that time to nurture and grow it will lead to a squad that can take those early blows from the Thunder and launch a counter-attack from all corners. But watching the anti-defensive, poor-finishing effort by Denver tonight makes it hard to see that point in the near future. The youth are tired and the remaining vets are neither leaders nor godlings in their own right. There were flashes of fight in this game. Mudiay getting backed down by Westbrook on one possession and stopping him the next, leading to a Harris steal. A block or two from Nurkic and some game effort by Lauvergne.
In the end, though, it felt like watching an infant wrestle an alligator. The Nuggets need to grow up in order to be taken seriously. Talent isn't enough, and neither is desire. Maturity and dedication would do this roster a lot of good - and if that maturity and dedication have to be added from outside the current lineup, so be it.
Until then the Nuggets will continue to be what they are: a curiosity but not a threat, and easily handled by a team that is committed to its style of basketball, whatever that may be. May the Nuggets find their own commitment heading into next year, and the maturing talent to maximize their next shot.