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Recap: Denver Nuggets steal a 126-125 win from the Oklahoma City Thunder, breath life into playoff hopes

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Huge win!

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets closed up their season long road trip clinging to hope that they can still make the postseason. In their way stood the Oklahoma City Thunder, a division opponent which carried crucial tie-breaking implications for the Nuggets. The two teams played a back and forth affair that would go into overtime with Denver getting big contributions from Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic and the Thunder got their usual big performance from Russell Westbrook. The Nuggets played with desperation down the stretch and rode their starters. Despite some questionable calls, Denver ultimately rose victorious, beating their divisional foe 126-125 in an must win game.

The Nuggets started the game off rough, with two straight turnovers on Jokic passes that were oh so close to being great dimes (one was Jokic’s fault, one was Jamal Murray’s fault). The Thunder broke out early while Denver struggled to score and it was 9-0 before the Nuggets finally got on the board. Millsap settled things down and led the Nuggets on a 9-3 run of their own to pull back within three of the Thunder. PFM pretty much got whatever he wanted against Carmelo Anthony and kept the Nuggets right with the Thunder. The game took a turn in OKC’s favor at the 5:18 mark when Jokic picked up his second foul and had to go to the bench. Will Barton had a forgettable two minutes where he missed a pair of shots and then overthrew a lob to Mason Plumlee, meanwhile Paul George got hot and capitalized on Denver’s mistakes which grew the Thunder’s lead. Torrey Craig had a huge putback that re-energized his team and the Nuggets stormed back to trail by just one at the end of the first.

Jokic returned to start the second quarter. The pairing of Murray and him gave Denver a small lead. Joker’s early foul trouble ended up working to the Nuggets advantage in the second. With Adams on the bench, the Thunder put Patrick Patterson on Jokic and he took advantage of that matchup more than once. Denver also got good contributions from their bench, Devin Harris and Trey Lyles provided solid minutes alongside Craig. Denver’s bench maintained a five point lead but once the Thunder starters came back in they struck back and regained the advantage with just under five minutes to play. The Nuggets got hot but they also struggled to secure defensive rebounds which resulted in the two teams trading the lead back and forth towards the end of the half. Denver made a strong close to the quarter and led by four after two.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Millsap and Jokic came out firing for the Nuggets, sparking a 6-0 run to open the half and give Denver a double digit lead. The Thunder went ice cold from the field while Jokic kept grinding away for points. Denver’s lead grew to fifteen but they took their foot off the gas a little which gave OKC a chance to get back in it. When Jokic went to the bench the Thunder had trimmed the Nuggets lead down to nine. Where Denver had so often fell apart when they went to the bench in the third quarter, this time they would not only tread water, but grow the lead. Plumlee abused the Thunder inside (and made his free throws!) and they remained inconsistent from the field. After three quarters Denver’s lead was 92-79.

Denver’s old habits started to rear their head again as they came out flat for the final quarter. OKC opened up the fourth with a 7-0 run forcing coach Malone to take a timeout after Patrick Patterson nailed a long two to bring the Thunder within six. The Nuggets flat out could not buy a bucket, in fact they wouldn’t even score a single point until the 9:14 mark of the quarter when Millsap finally got a short jumper. The Thunder comeback was complete when Westbrook drew a questionable goaltending call to tie it at 94. With just over 3 minutes left the Thunder held a three point lead. Barton had a forgettable shot and the Nuggets had a defensive breakdown, things were starting to look grim. Miraculously, Denver refused to back down, Millsap kept getting position in the post and after he hit a pair of free throws the game was tied at 110 a piece. Steven Adams got fouled, made 1 of 2 free throws and the Nuggets biggest flaw of the game reared its head when they gave up an offensive rebound to George. Denver decided to not defend Westbrook when he got the ball and he threw down a ferocious jam to put OKC up by three. Millsap got a quick two, George missed one of two free throws and Willy B Buckets Barton made a sweet spin move into a layup to tie it at 114 with 9 seconds left. The Thunder went to Westbrook for the final possession but he clanked his three off the back iron and for the second time on the road trip the Nuggets headed to overtime.

Both teams struggled to get buckets in the extra period, but Jokic hit a jumper with just past three minutes to go to give the Nuggets a one point lead after the only bucket the Thunder had been able to muster was a Corey Brewer three. For what seemed like the billionth time, the Nuggets failed to secure a defensive rebound which earned Brewer two free throws, he only converted 1 of 2 though and Murray came back to capture the lead for Denver. Inside a minute to go the Nuggets lead was still one. Denver got a stop after the referees overturned an out of bounds call but Devin Harris couldn’t convert an open three. Millsap refused to give Westbrook an open layup on the other end and after another out of bounds review, the Nuggets had the ball, a one point lead and only 22 seconds on the clock. Denver got the ball to Murray, their best free throw shooter but George locked him up for a jump ball which naturally he won. Plumlee had a huuuuge block at the rim on Jerami Grant and the Nuggets would eventually get to ice the game at the free throw line to secure a massive victory.

Best matchup: Paul Millsap vs Carmelo Anthony

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

This was Millsap’s best game in a Nugget uniform hands down. He provided a lot of scoring for the Nuggets, especially when other guys were struggling to get their shot going. Melo meanwhile did what Melo does, shoot. He certainly wasn’t very efficient but as a volume scorer he still managed to put up 23 points. It’s a shame that in all likelihood we won’t get a Thunder-Nuggets playoff series this year. Millsap exposed a big weakness in this matchup by showing he could pretty much get whatever he wanted against Melo but to Melo’s credit he had some big moments in OT. In the end though, it was still Millsap getting the biggest buckets down the stretch on his way to 36 points.

Main thing I noticed: Chandler got hurt

The Nuggets just simply can not catch a break on the injury front. Shortly before the game Coach Malone announced that he expects Gary Harris to be out for another week and tonight Chandler had to leave the game with a nose contusion. Obviously you don’t want to speculate but hopefully its not too serious with Wilson and at the worst he might just have to wear a mask for a couple of games. If he is out any extended period of time it is going to be the latest blow in what has been a tough ride on many fronts down the final stretch of the season.

Closing thought: this really would have been a fun playoff series

Every single game between Denver and OKC was a close one and the matchups are really tantalizing. It’s a big bummer these teams in all likelihood are not going to meet each other in the playoffs this season. The atmoshpere in Oklahoma City was buzzing and the game certinaly had the feel of a playoff matchup which leaves me wanting more. It’ll be interesting to see what the Thunder look like after free agency this offseason but if they do end up retaining George look for this to be a growing rivalry next season. One of the positives that should be taken out of this season is it finally feels like the Nuggets can definitely hang with their division rival and nemesis in the Thunder and Westbrook.

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