The Oklahoma City Thunder put a scare into the Denver Nuggets with a strong fourth quarter spurt, but the Nuggets pulled away late to go to 3-0 on the season against the Thunder with a 121-112 victory. Nikola Jokic just missed a triple double with 36 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds, and both Jamal Murray and Will Barton scored 20+ points with crucial buckets across all four quarters. Denver built an 18 point lead at one point but – reminiscent of times last year – fumbled it away in the fourth.

OKC had a poor shooting night from Paul George but got great contributions up and down the box score from him including 6 steals. Russell Westbrook took just 14 shots (coming up one assist shy of his own triple double), but they played hard on defense and with Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel had a good big man rotation to challenge Denver. In then end, though, they just couldn’t solve Jokic and it proved to be the difference.

Jokic took the ball into the paint and then passed out of a double team for a Malik Beasley opening three. Jokic and Adams exchanged buckets on each other, and both teams attacked the paint early. The finishing was a bit sloppy and a transition Paul George dunk followed by another Adams bucket made it 13-7 OKC early. 

Jokic made a pair of free throws and swished a three to close it back down, and Barton finished in the lane to retake the lead 14-13. The team had their offense fueled by a stiffer defense, and both Murray and Will Barton pushed the ball in transition. A beautiful baseline finish by Barton off a Jokic pass got the crowd up and gave Denver a 20-15 lead. 

Plumlee had a great finish on an oop but the Thunder tied up at 22 with effort and transition finishes of their own. Isaiah Thomas checked in with a couple minutes to go in the first, and after some more sloppy finishing Isaiah hit a three pointer on a curl and it would keep Denver up after one, 29-26 despite a botched final shot of the quarter by Monte Morris. 

Torrey Craig stuffed Dennis Schroder to force a jump ball and Mason Plumlee was then called for a charge as the helter skelter nature of the game continued into the second quarter. Schroder finished a nice floater and Denver was called for 4 fouls in the first two minutes as the refs made sure to be noticed on TNT. Denver allowed a ton of rebounds but OKC could not convert, while Denver could only put together 2 shots to the Thunder’s 10 in the first 3 minutes. 

Jokic came back in with the Nuggets down 37-34 and immediately scored, then worked over Adams with a bunch of moves and fakes to score in the paint. A Thomas pull-up three followed by a Murray corner 3 made it 44-38 Denver halfway through the quarter. OKC fought back in transition, but Denver kept the pressure on. Murray and Jokic worked an inside out game and an inverted pick and roll to put Denver up 8. George hit a monster dunk, Murray scored on a beautiful step-back to answer, and then an outstanding passing sequence led to the first of two three-pointers from Jokic that put Denver up by 13 at the half, 64-51.

Jokic missed his first couple of shots of the second half while Westbrook and George each hit threes to cut the Thunder deficit to 8. After a timeout the Nuggets took a page from the Thunder’s playbook and attacked the rim. Denver blew some paint buckets but the beautiful Barton-assisted three by Malik Beasley put Denver back up 9, 72-61. Beasley had a good start to the third quarter and Denver picked up the intensity to match OKC. Jokic went the length of the floor for a finish at the rim to make it 78-67 when the benches started filtering in.

Barton swished a three after yet another Jerami Grant finish, Jokic swung the ball out to Murray for another three, and Jokic answered a Westbrook finish with a three of his own to stretch the lead to 16. Grant hit a three in response, but even with Jokic on the bench and a banked half-point three at the buzzer off a steal from Paul George the Nuggets maintained their double-digit lead at 91-78. 

The start of the fourth was a comedy of errors from Denver, with turnovers, Torrey Craig getting blocked by the rim and then a Nuggets fast break getting stuffed. Denver kept its double-digit lead and then Nerlens Noel leveled Gary Harris in the air after a touch foul was called on Raymond Felton. It was called a technical foul but offset by Harris throwing the ball at Noel on the way down for his own tech. Isaiah Thomas hit a paint bucket but the Thunder closed to 95-87 on a rebound and three from an energized Paul George. 

Denver’s bench continued to falter as the Thunder drew within a pair of buckets thanks to pressure from OKC leading to turnovers from the Nuggets, forcing Jokic and Millsap to return early. OKC’s Morris twin made a three, and a pair of steams by Paul George closed it to 97-94 on a 21-6 run. Denver had a stretch of 5 turnovers in 6 possessions, and Shroder’s three-pointer tied the game. Westbrook gave the Thunder the lead as Denver couldn’t do anything right fir the first half of the final frame.

Jokic missed a pair of free throws but Millsap grabbed the rebound and finally put points on the board for a desperate Denver squad. Millsap then got a block and an assist to Murray to settle Denver down and get them ready for the fight to the finish.  

Millsap continued to work on both ends of the court, but Paul George and Russell Westbrook forced their way to the line to make up the difference. Nerlens Noel fouled out on Jokic who made his free throws this time, then Denver turned over the Thunder on back to back possessions. 

Jokic forced his way into the paint and dished to Murray for another three to make it 110-104 Denver with two minutes to go. Jokic scored again inside as Denver’s closer but OKC made their bones at the line to keep it a two possession game. Jokic heard the MVP chant again at the line, though, and Murray got the turnover off of Westbrook with active hands. Jokic hit the dagger free throws with a minute to go then freed the ball as it was stuck on the backboard – he just did everything. Barton got to the line and put the exclamation point on Denver’s third win in three tries against the Thunder this season. 

Final Thoughts

– The Nuggets fought got their nerves all night but eventually got them under control. They came out shaky and took a couple of shots from OKC early, but Denver leveraged its way back into the contest in the middle of the first quarter. Jokic led the way but the guys calmed down and settled into their roles as the game went on. The Thunder made their runs, especially during that absymal stretch in the fourth quarter where neither the bench nor the starters could do anything right, but Paul Millsap had several key minutes down the stretch to steady the ship on both ends of the court, and then Jokic and Murray closed it out.

Denver never let the bad luck and bad breaks get to them, and kept their belief in a victory. They refused to let the Thunder snatch it away, and that bodes well for the rest of this regular season as well as the playoffs.

– Denver’s bench had one of its worst performances of the year. They collectively scored just 22 of Denver’s 121 points, 11 from Isaiah Thomas, and had no rhythm together. Torrey Craig missed several easy layups and dunks, Monte Morris made late-quarter mistakes that are unlike him, and Plumlee struggled to score or rebound. One of the major strengths of the Nuggets when compared to last year is their bench, but tonight they did not come through. Denver cannot afford that kind of regression when Jokic sits. Finding the right bench rotation over the final 20+ games of the regular season is key. Michael Malone attempted to leave Isaiah Thomas in the game late for what I would assume were leadership reasons, but he doesn’t have the health or the defensive prowess to help stem the tide against a team like the Thunder. Getting everyone into the right roles is absolutely crucial. Tonight, all those roles were off.