After four straight losses the Denver Nuggets were looking to get a much needed win in the hostile territory of the Oklahoma City Thunder but before the opening tip it seemed as though the odds were not in their favor. First Nikola Jokic was ruled out with the flu and then Gary Harris was a game time scratch with a sore groin. Even that would prove to be not the biggest of the Nuggets concerns, because the Thunder feature one of the best players on the planet in triple double machine Russell Westbrook and he did not disappoint. It took him about halfway into the fourth quarter to record his 17th triple double of the season as he had another monster game with thirty-two points, seventeen rebounds and eleven assists. The Thunder eventually proved to be too much for Denver and they get the victory tonight, 121-106.
It took a minute before either team scored as the game begun but once Jusuf Nurkic tipped in his own miss and the Thunder responded in the post with Steven Adams it was clear that from the outset both players looked prepared for the physical battle down low. Domantas Sabonis and Darrell Arthur also went at each other in the post early and it was Sabonis who won that matchup which got the Thunder an early lead. Surprisingly, Denver was keeping it close by playing solid defense, something that’s been a problem for them over the past several games. Unfortunately, the Nuggets starters couldn’t throw a beach ball into an ocean to start the game and it wasn’t until the final four minutes of the quarter when Danilo Gallinari and the bench started to muster some offense. That helped the Nuggets to close the gap and finish the quarter trailing by just two points.
Juancho Hernangomez, freshly returned from the D-league, opened the second quarter with nice putback dunk as the Nuggets reserve unit was bringing the energy. Wilson Chandler was doing his share of scoring, including a nice throw down right after Hernangomez had been denied at the rim. From that moment on until about the halfway point of the quarter it was the Ill Will show as he buried contested and open jumpers alike on his way to nineteen points before half time. At the seven minute mark Westbrook checked back in but the Nuggets were continuing their offensive onslaught through veterans Jameer Nelson and Darrell Arthur as Denver grew their lead to as much as six before Russ buried a contested three to reign them back in. Just as he heated up, so did Will Barton and they traded baskets as the quarter closed which left the game tied at sixty at the half.
Westbrook had no trouble picking up where he left off in the second half as he opened the third quarter by swishing a contested three and looked well on his way to another triple double. The Nuggets were keeping pace with Nurkic, who had two big dunks and then followed those up by drawing a foul and grabbing an offensive board on the opposite end. The Thunder countered with their back court combo of Victor Oladipo and Westbrook which kept them narrowly ahead of Denver. Then, coach Malone made an odd choice around the five minute mark and went small while Adams was still on the court which promptly led to nine straight points for the Thunder, all from Adams, and a double digit lead. Chandler kept playing tough on both ends but Denver was over matched while OKC kept their big lineup on the court to close the quarter and ended the third ahead by eight 88-80.
Adams and Westbrook opened the fourth quarter on the bench and the Nuggets tried to use the opportunity to get themselves back in the game but Oladipo was still in the game and he was scoring at will. Despite some good energy, including a monster rejection by Chandler, Denver couldn’t find a way to trim down the lead at all while the majority of the Thunder starters rested. In fact had it not been for some timely shooting from Nelson the Thunder probably would have made the game a formality before there was eight minutes to go. Once the Thunder starters checked back in it began to feel like the Nuggets weren’t going to have enough to earn a victory. They kept hovering around the 8-10 point deficit mark and every time Denver hit a shot Westbrook would respond with one of his own. He would pick up his eleventh assist with an easy dish to Jerami Grant on the breakaway, who finished emphatically for an and one and that seemed to be the dagger. Just to make sure Westbrook continued to go supernova and with four minutes remaining the Thunder’s lead had grown to eighteen. The Nuggets gave it one last gasp effort, including playing the foul game with two minutes left, but ultimately too much Westbrook would lead to a Denver loss.
Best matchup: Jusuf Nurkic vs Steven Adams
With Jokic out with the flu Nurkic was thrust into the starting lineup and he played one of his better games of the season. HE had some silly turnovers, and his offense can be frustratingly predictable but tonight where Jokic might have struggled to deal with the strength of Adams, Nurkic was more than up to the task. He was able to bruise his way down low for easy points and he was an intimidating force in the paint and on the boards. Adams meanwhile was held in check by Nurkic, but any time he was on the court while Nurkic was not he would dominate. Faried or Chandler simply can not contain a player of his size and strength. In fact those guys had trouble containing a player of Sabonis’ strength. The period in the third quarter where Nurkic rested and Adams did not was a huge swing in the Thunder’s favor.
Main thing I noticed: The bench did their part
The Nuggets bench, led by Chandler, was outstanding tonight. It was the bench who battled back from an early hole in the first quarter and two of the Nuggets starters, Barton and Nurkic, are regular bench players as well. Barton and Chandler showed fully what a dynamic scoring duo the Nuggets currently have in their reserve unit while Nurkic looked like the supremely talented big man everybody was raving about early in the season. Denver also got solid contributions from Nelson, Hernangomez and Kenneth Faried. Meanwhile, the Nuggets starting point guard was a no show. There’s certainly no way you can hang tonight’s loss on Denver’s reserves.
Closing thought: Nurkic on the bench killed the Nuggets
Not having Jokic hurt Denver, big time. Not even so much in the fact that he is Denver’s best player, but in the fact that he’s the Nuggets second tallest player. The Thunder are one of the rare teams that utilize two big men in Adams and Kanter while the Nuggets have only two true big men on the roster (something they probably shore up with a ten day contract very soon) so when Nikola was out they were in trouble. Westbrook is gonna do Westbrook, there’s no stopping him, but it wasn’t until the end of the third quarter when Adams was on the floor with no true center defending him that the Nuggets fell out of reach. I get that coach can’t play Juka forty plus minutes in a game but he didn’t even get over thirty. I thought he took Nurkic out too early in the third and waited too long to bring him back in the fourth and that stretch is where the Nuggets lost the game.