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Recap: Denver Nuggets jump out to huge lead, then hold on to beat Oklahoma City Thunder 105-98

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Wasn’t always pretty but what a huge win

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Oklahoma City Thunder Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets were fresh off beating the Orlando Magic last night but arrived early in the morning in Oklahoma City to take on the Thunder tonight. The Thunder played last night as well, but were afforded the luxury of not having to hop on a plane immediately after. Also working against the Nuggets was the fact that they were missing one of their best players as Gary Harris was unable to go with an ankle injury. The Nuggets started out slowly but found their shot towards the end of the first quarter and rode a solid defensive performance to build a big lead in the first half. The Thunder wouldn’t go quietly though as stars Russell Westbrook and Paul George pushed back in the third quarter to get OKC back within striking distance. Ultimately, the Nuggets used a team effort and stifling defense and it was just enough to hold off the Thunder’s comeback attempt and walk out of Oklahoma City with a huge win.

Torrey Craig started in Gary Harris’ place and the Nuggets were sloppy out of the gate. Denver struggled to keep the ball in their hands and to sink their shots but the Thunder were likewise having problems which led to a very low scoring affair early on. Each team scored precisely one basket in the first three minutes of the game. The Nuggets shooting was clearly affected by tired legs, some of their three pointers even had trouble drawing iron. The first half of the quarter was pretty ugly to watch, Jerami Grant highlighted it with an emphatic dunk over Jokic but otherwise it was comprised mostly of bad shooting and even worse ball security. After a timeout Paul George started to find some rhythm but the Nuggets responded by getting out in transition. Unfortunately, their momentum was killed when Paul Millsap went down with an apparent knee injury and had to go back to the locker room. Denver’s bench stepped in though and continued where they left off last night with their stellar play as they started knocking down outside shots. They led a strong run to close out the quarter and the Nuggets had an early 10 point lead after one.

The Nuggets bench came out with energy in the second quarter but they were playing reckless and not getting good looks. Their defense was up to snuff though, including Mason Plumlee absolutely stuffing Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot when he attempted a poster jam and then a denial of Steven Adams in the post shortly thereafter. Lyles and Plumlee also kept up their strong offensive performance from last night as well which was just enough to keep pushing ahead of the Thunder. Their lead was up to 14 midway through the quarter but Steven Adams was giving Denver trouble on the offensive glass which prevented the lead from growing more. In an excellent sign, with about five minutes to go Millsap returned to the court. With the starters back in the Nuggets went to a two man game with Jokic and Murray meanwhile George was back to scoring for OKC. The Nuggets played outstanding defense throughout the quarter, Jokic wasn’t having a block party like Plumlee was but his positioning was excellent and that was effective enough to be solid rim protection. Denver grinded out some baskets on one end and but let the Thunder claw their way to some points on the other end. Still, after one half it was Denver with a commanding 63-42 lead.

The second half started with more solid defense from Denver and timely scoring, including a Juancho Hernangomez four point play. Jokic went to the bench early with foul trouble and the Nuggets used a lineup that involved Craig, Plumlee and Millsap with Murray and Hernangomez. There wasn’t a ton of scoring naturally but they locked the Thunder up for a good two minute stretch. Millsap gave the Nuggets some points from the outside but the Thunder were finding their second wind to chip away at the lead. Denver’s defense was not letting up though. Craig was giving the Nuggets next to nothing on offense but his energy on defense was impressive, including one play where he chased down Westbrook for a beautiful block. Denver’s offense went completely ice cold as the quarter was drawing to a close which was breathing life back into the arena and the Thunder. OKC started hitting a couple of shots and the Nuggets lead was starting to dwindle. Despite having four fouls, coach Malone inserted Jokic back into the game with three minutes to go in the quarter to try to spark the offense but he was cold. Luckily the Thunder had cooled off as well so the Nuggets lead was holding around fourteen points. Westbrook hit a classic Westbrook three right before the end of the third to trim Denver’s lead to 79-66.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Oklahoma City Thunder Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

The Nuggets opened the fourth quarter much like they ended the third, unable to get any of their shots to go down. The Thunder meanwhile were still chipping away and after George hit a three to trim the lead to single digits coach Malone was forced to call a timeout. Lyles was one of the few guys who was giving them consistent offense throughout the night, he had a timely and-1 to get the Nuggets back up to double digits. Both teams started to find their rhythm as the quarter progressed. Jokic flat out could not buy a basket but he was using his size to bully the Thunder inside and get to the foul line. Denver seemed to find the limit to how much they would allow OKC to come back which was around the 8 point mark. It seemed like every time the Thunder were in danger of getting closer the Nuggets would get a big basket to give themselves a little more breathing room. Still, the Thunder were not going to go without a fight. Jerami Grant hit a three to trim the lead to six with three minutes to go. Luckily, Jokic and Murray finally found their offense and Craig had a huge putback to counter each bucket the Thunder made. With about a minute to go the Thunder finally seemed to be running out of gas. A couple bad possessions on their end resulted in easy Nuggets baskets which would prove to be the nail in the coffin. Denver wins 105-98.

Best matchup: Paul George vs Juancho Hernangomez

Juancho came in tonight with a tall task in covering Paul George, and George didn’t disappoint as he was the one consistent force on Oklahoma City’s side. It wasn’t just his scoring that effected the game either as every time George had the ball the Nuggets had to account for him which let other players get open with ease. Though Juancho wasn’t able to slow George much, he was able to be efficient on offense to provide some scoring which was much needed. With Harris out, Juancho had to serve the role of scorer in “the one wing starter plus the bench” lineups that Malone likes to use and in the first half in particular Juancho proved up to that task.

Main thing I noticed: Mason Plumlee has been so good

Mase has been one of the more polarizing players on the Nuggets roster. A lot of that revolves around the price the Nuggets paid to acquire and then retain his services, which of course is 100% not Plumlee’s fault as all. However, even if it was it’s pretty hard to be a Plumlee critic right now. He’s been the anchor of the second unit along with Morris, and those two have a great pick and roll game going as well. With the pressure taken off Plumlee to be the primary facilitator when Jokic is out he’s excelling as the secondary facilitator. He’s also showing once again how valuable he can be on defense with his rim protection. It was Plumlee’s pair of blocks in the second quarter that effectively swung the momentum fully to Denver when they went on their run to get the big lead early. Though he was on the floor when OKC started making their comeback, he still was one of the best players for Denver on the court and without him the Thunder may have been able to come all the way back.

Closing thought: Gutsy, gutsy win

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Oklahoma City Thunder Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

Denver pretty much spat in the face of the idea that this was a schedule loss tonight. They used a huge run between the first and second quarter to put the Thunder way behind early on and then when OKC surged back at the end of the third quarter and beginning of the fourth the Nuggets found enough energy and offense to stave off the comeback effort. It certainly wasn’t pretty at times and Denver’s best player put out a pretty big dud but the Nuggets found a way to grind out a win and Jokic was at his best when the Nuggets needed him the most. A lot of tonight’s win had to do with the things that were so big in the 9-1 start: excellent defense and using their bench to build leads. The Nuggets of last year lose this game, good teams who are perennial playoff teams lose these games, Denver found a way to win and bounce back from a tough stretch in one of the toughest games on their schedule and that is extremely impressive.