A short-handed Denver Nuggets team closed out the regular season the right way, winning 111-105 over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook only played the first half and finished with 5 points and 8 assists on 2-of-10 shooting. That left Denver’s young players with a lot of minutes against beatable opponents, and they took advantage. Nikola Jokic put up 29 points, 16 rebounds, 8 assists and 5 blocks, while Jamal Murray had 27 points and 6 assists while Malik Beasley added 17 / 3 / 3. Denver only played 7 men in the rotation, but on a back-to-back they gutted out the energy lulls and pulled out the final victory of the season.

The game opened with a great tribute video for Russell Westbrook while Denver only had a handful of players available for this game. With Gary Harris out with injury, Malik Beasley got the first start of his career and drew the assignment on Russell Westbrook early (when Russ was 1-for-7).

Jokic started with a no-look pass that Mason Plumlee fumbled away, so Jokic took it upon himself to score the first bucket for Denver. Beasley missed a transition bucket but got his own rebound and finished the second time, then swished a three for a quick 7-0 lead for Denver. A couple of Denver turnovers and poor offensive choices let OKC close it to 10-7 but a high bank shot from Malik and a runner from Jamal Murray helped Denver keep the lead. 

A Russ-to-Adams oop was great for OKC, and Denver kept turning the ball over, but the Thunder couldn't take advantage until Jokic got his second foul in the first quarter and had to sit after a non-call on OKC put his temperature to boiling. Beasley had 11 of Denver's first 21 and a Darrell Arthur heaved 3 at the buzzer drew free throws and left Denver down just 1 at 26-25. 

Jokic started the 2nd quarter on the floor for Denver, but the Thunder started with a 9-2 run anyway. The Thunder kept hitting open jump shots to take a 10 point lead 39-29 off the efforts of their bench.  Jokic and Murray teamed up to cut it to 5, but some missed free throws from Jokic and some poor rotations let OKC take the lead back to double digits. The Thunder ran a layup line for a while against a tired Denver defense, as most of the Nuggets weren't used to either heavy minutes or back-to-backs.

Jokic had a nice coast-to-coast layup and a pass for a Plumlee dunk, but no one could cool off the Thunder.  Abrines hit three 3s in the first half, but Denver closed on a 7-2 spurt to make it single digits again at halftime, 64-56 despite being out-rebounded 30-17.

Adams and Westbrook were not on the floor to start the second half and Murray hit a 3 to open Denver's scoring and hit 4 of their first 5 shots, but they still couldn't get traction to significantly cut the lead. A Darrell Arthur 3, a Jokic 3 point play and some more Joker free-throws cut it to 3 at 76-73 about halfway through the quarter. The Nuggets finally took a lead on a couple of buckets from Jamal Murray including a Beasley-assisted 3.

Denver then went cold from the field but nursed a 1 point lead into the 4th quarter, 86-85. Beasley ran the point in the first few minutes with Jokic off the floor, and Juancho blew several shots before finally driving for a dunk and even hitting a 3 at long last. Jokic and Beasley connected for a sweet bucket and Denver went up 10, but some poor decisions/fatigue let the Thunder cut it to six with 4 minutes to go.

Murray hit a big reverse layup and a free throw for a 3-point play, then slammed home a dunk. Because they couldn't get stops, though, it required Denver's offense to get the win.  Jokic had the most awkward bank shot ever but it went in, then put in a spin up-and-under to seal the game – or so you'd think. But the refs didn't call a goaltending on a Thunder putback and Denver screwed up some more inbounds plays to make it more interesting than it had to be. But in the end, Denver took the six point victory 111-105 and headed into the offseason on a winning note.

Final Recap Thought For The Year:

Keep the faith.  

The Nuggets made plenty of mistakes this year, from betting on the Jurkic lineup and then benching Jokic, to mishandling Jusuf Nurkic and then moving him to the division rival that subsequently took Denver’s playoff spot, to fumbling with lineups and defensive schemes until players and fans were both aggravated to the point of voicing their frustrations.

Whether some of us wanted the young players to get more time or different rotations, though, the future still looks bright.  Denver doesn’t have any millstone contracts, or terrible veterans, or blown draftpicks (no, not even Emmanuel Mudiay). Oklahoma City has one star right now and a supporting cast of some pretty good players, and that’s enough for them to get near 50 wins. The Nuggets hope to reach that point next year while they look to build what OKC had before Durant and Harden left: a legitimate contender.

Denver has Jokic, and the quest to either find or develop a second star continues. Their 2016-17 season may be done after tonight, but the rebuild marches onward. Kevin Durant went from 23 wins in his second season to 50 in his third (when Westbrook was a sophomore and James Harden was a rookie).  Seems pretty easy – just add another All-Star in the draft. How hard can finding a Westbrook or Harden be?  Just win the lottery this year, right.

Since the odds of that are long, it’s good that while Denver’s currently in the middle of the Western Conference they’re not stuck there. This isn’t the best they can be. As the curtain draws shut on the season, just remember that. The Nuggets have lots of quality young players, at least one star, and tons of pieces and cap room to maneuver to improve the team.

If these are the first rays of the sun after the recent dark period in Nuggets history, then I’m looking forward to the full dawn when it gets here. Thanks to everyone that followed us this year in one of the best years for this site. We’ll have plenty more for you over the long offseason as all of us gear up for the better days ahead!