The Nuggets fought hard in Oklahoma City on Monday night, coming back from down 15 at one point to lead late in the game. Denver couldn’t hold on, however, as Russell Westbrook and the Thunder were able to escape with a 95-94 win.

In an interesting move, Malone decided to ride the hot hand and kept the same starting lineup as on Friday. That meant Mason Plumlee started at center and Nikola Jokic came off the bench, and Torrey Craig earned his second career NBA start. Any hope of getting off to a quick start were squashed by Westbrook, who ignited the Thunder on a 10-2 run within the first few minutes of the game. Denver struggled to do anything early – missed shots, turnovers and dumb fouls coupled by hot shooting by the Thunder led to a quick 13 point deficit.

Mercifully, Nikola Jokic checked into the game and things started to pick up for the Nuggets. Wilson Chandler made a couple of shots and Gary Harris and Jamal Murray each hit a three, but defensively the Nuggets couldn’t stop anyone. OKC shot 63.2% in the first quarter to Denver’s 36.8%, and led 32-18 as a result.

For the first part of the second quarter the Nuggets played stagnant basketball, as if the rest of the team forgot Jokic was on the court. Soon, Joker got the ball and was able to exploit some mismatches to bring the Nuggets on a 9-2 run and keep them within striking distance. The offense really opened up from there and Denver was able cut the lead down to six and force a Thunder timeout. Defensively the Thunder attacked the paint and were able to get easy buckets the entire quarter. At the half, Denver found itself down 52-44.

Gary Harris was active in the opening minutes of the second half, dishing out a nice assist to Mason Plumlee and making a layup. Harris hit the deck hard on a layup attempt and was down for several minutes, but got up, made the free throws and stayed in the game. Denver came out gunning and went on a 10-0 run to tie the game which included a nice transition bucket from Torrey Craig off of an errant Westbrook pass. Westbrook powered OKC back up, but then the floodgates semi-opened: Murray drained a long three, Chandler had a steal and reverse layup, Craig hit from deep and Denver was up by five.

But just as quick as it happened, the Thunder took back the lead following two quick threes by Alex Abrines. Craig hit another three and made a nice cut for an easy basket on a pass by Jokic, and the game of runs continued. The ball was popping as the Nuggets blitzed their way to a 9-0 run to close the quarter and go up by six.

The fourth quarter got off to a scary start as Patrick Patterson seemed to step on Jokic’s foot. Jokic went down in pain and left the game, but checked back in a minute later. Lyles hit a three then tipped in a Barton miss. Denver went up by 10, but Westbrook checked back in and the lead evaporated. The rest of the game was crazy and went back and forth until the teams were tied at 94 with 48 seconds remaining.

Denver had possession, but executed poorly as Murray dribbled out the shot clock and missed a stepback three. Lyles fouled with 14 seconds to go which let Plumlee sub in for Jokic to play defense. Westbrook drove and was fouled, but only hit one free throw and Denver had a chance with less than two seconds remaining. Chandler fed Harris a bad pass, and the Thunder held on to win 95-94.

Game Notes and Thoughts

  • No more of Jokic coming off the bench. I’m all for bringing him back slowly, but with Steven Adams out to me it seemed like a no-brainer to have him start. Jokic was able to really get the offense going for everyone when he did get the ball, and that would have been huge early on instead of playing catch up the entire first half.
  • HUGE shoutout to Torrey Craig. Imagine it’s your second NBA start and your assignment is Russell Westbrook. Craig pretty much stayed on him all night, and while Westbrook still got his it sure wasn’t easy. On top of that, Craig was a huge boost to Denver’s offense. He scored 14 points and was 5-5 from the field, hitting some huge threes in the process. This dude belongs in the NBA.
  • Will Barton was a dud tonight. 0-8 from three and bogged down the offense way too much. Malone smartly removed him from the game late in the fourth after he airballed a contested three. Meanwhile, Trey Lyles continued to solidify his role in the rotation as a stretch four. He hit some huge shots in the second half which helped open the offense and give Denver the lead.
  • One point losses are tough to swallow. The Nuggets looked like they were going to pull away, but poor execution down the stretch really cost them. Denver couldn’t score at all in the last five minutes, and intentionally fouling with 14 seconds left was stupid as it reset the shot clock from 9 to 14 seconds while setting up Westbrook to just drive and go to the line. The last inbounds play was awful too, and not just because Chandler botched the pass. The play design in itself was extremely questionable given the time on the clock; even if the pass did go in what is a 30 foot heave going to do? Overall I thought Malone coached well enough to win, but it’s the end results that matter. This was not a good result.