The Denver Nuggets lost a heartbreaker on a last-second shot to fall to the Oklahoma City Thunder 118-117. Nikola Jokic had 24 points, 12 assists and 6 rebounds, Michael Porter Jr added 20 and 11, and Aaron Gordon had 16 and 9 but Murray’s shot was off as he was pressured by OKC’s guards and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s absence was felt in every easy drive a Thunder ball-handler took all night.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has 25 points, six rebounds and 8 assists for OKC and also nailed the game winning shot, and Chet Holmgren was one block short of a triple-double in a very impressive performance, but Denver was up by 8 with three and a half minutes to go and couldn’t close. The atmosphere was great, both teams brought the intensity, but OKC made the plays when they mattered down the stretch and Denver without KCP could not stop them from getting whatever they wanted.

Game Recap

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope missed his second straight game so Justin Holiday started in his place. SGA started the scoring for OKC, matched by a Porter layup on the other end. Josh Giddey finished at the bucket, and Porter buried a three in his face in return. Murray missed a three and SGA finished the break off the rebound, but Jokic got his first bucket back on the other end for an early 8-7 score. Jamal Murray had a nice fast-break crossover for a finish, and Jokic got blocked by Chet Holmgren but grabbed his own deflection and got the hook finish. Murray had a beautiful finish over Holmgren and Aaron Gordon avoided Chet’s defense for another finish, but the Thunder ran on every missed shot and Lu Dort hit a three for a 17-15 Thunder lead and a timeout.

Murray made some free throws and Justin Holiday buried a three, but that was answered by OKC in a tight quarter. A furious shooting and rebounding possession finally ended in an AG putback, but Jamal Murray picked up his second foul on SGA on the other end and had to sit. Peyton Watson and Isaiah Joe exchanged buckets, then Watson hit a three off a Jokic assist and Denver took a 29-23 lead with three minutes to go in the quarter. Denver’s bench players had a couple of misses and turnovers but scrappy defense made things hard for OKC to finish except from the foul line. Reggie Jackson finally got another bucket for Denver and despite a last second miss by Julian Strawther the Nuggets finished the quarter up 31-27 after one.

Denver’s bench missed a couple of buckets to start the second quarter as well, scoring one field goal between the last three minutes of the third and the first two of the second until Watson finished an awkward paint shot, then buried a three to stretch Denver’s lead to 8. DeAndre Jordan got a finish but had OKC run back on him to make it 41-32 Denver at the timeout.

Jokic and Murray came back in and Murray missed a pair of threes, then Denver fumbled some inside shots, and Wiggins cut the lead to 42-37. Murray committed a shooting foul on Williams for Jamal’s third foul, then fed Jokic for a paint bucket. Murray’s next assist was to MPJ for a three that stretched the lead back to 8 after a triple-team on Jokic. MPJ kept rebounding on defense and got a layup the other way for his 10th point to go with 5 first half rebounds. The Thunder kept taking and making free throws to keep the game close despite Jokic deciding to score a little more. Jaylin Williams made a three to cut the lead to 5, Gordon’s free throws were offset by Holmgren’s dunk, and the Nuggets went into halftime up just two after a last-minute three from Jaylin Williams, 56-54.

Aaron Gordon missed his first shot inside to start the third quarter, but the next time down he finished a wonderful tip pass from Jokic. Jokic forced a turnover off Holmgren and Holiday buried a three. Holmgren made a bucket but MPJ nailed a three. Jokic finished a wonderful juke for a paint bucket, but Lu Dort answered with a three. Jalen Williams hit a monster dunk while Jamal Murray struggled to score, and Holmgren’s floater closed the Denver lead down to just one at 68-67. Jokic made a pair of free throws, but both teams struggled to make buckets cleanly in the first 6 minutes. MPJ hit a three to break that streak, but Jokic couldn’t finish several attempts inside to increase the lead. Denver’s defense stiffened with some turnovers and Murray had a circus finish, and then the oop to Gordon from Jokic made it 80-72 Denver. OKC got more free throws though, Josh Giddey made a bucket and Holmgren blocked Watson inside to keep Denver from stretching that advantage. Watson got a transition dunk off a Jokic assist though, with an offensive foul on Jokic followed by a three from Holmgren made it a one-bucket lead again. The bench came in and immediately turned the ball over, but Reggie’s last-minute three and a finish by Jokic kept Denver up after three quarters, 87-85.

Denver came out with Aaron Gordon at center and MPJ at power forward and immediately got a stop and a Christian Braun bucket. Gordon made a pair of free throws, Wiggins answered with a tap-in for OKC, and the Nuggets got a steal and free throws for Braun again. Gordon passed to Reggie Jackson to make the lead 95-87 early in the quarter and force a Thunder timeout. Isaiah Joe hit a three, answered by a dunk from Christian Braun, and Denver took a timeout to save a possession up 5 and to bring Murray and Jokic back in. Murray immediately finished a left-handed layup, Joe answered with a 15 footer, and Braun nailed a considerred three for 102-94 halfway through the quarter. Jokic buried his first three point attempt but SGA completed a beautiful drive. Murray got blocked by Holmgren but Jokic got the deflection and went to the free-throw line to hit both. Jokic got a great steal but Watson turned it over for free throws the other way. Holmgren blocked a Gordon dunk, SGA and Braun exchanged jumpers, and Denver was up 109-103 with four minutes to go when Jokic threw this beautiful left-hand lob assist over Holmgren to Gordon for the dunk.

Oklahoma City kept driving the hoop however and closed the gap to three even after an MPJ dunk, and a Holmgren oop after a turnover forced Denver’s timeout. Denver being careless with the ball down the stretch was costly, but Porter hit a corner three off a Jokic assist and Murray hit a step-back to counter SGA’s free throws and keep Denver up 117-114 with 43 seconds to go. Jalen Williams finished a nice drive, the Nuggets had a poor offensive possession that ended with a prayer three from Jokic that missed, and SGA hit a great step back to win the game for OKC 118-117.

Final Thoughts

KCP was missed. I said it before, but they really needed someone else other that Watson out there to get stops on ball-handlers. OKC had 33 fourth-quarter points – 20 of those in the paint – and got every matchup they wanted down the stretch with very little resistance from Denver. It’s a different game with Pope in there to force a second option from  the Thunder. Denver game up 24 blow-bys at the point of attack and it’s very hard to beat the Thunder if they get their first choice of every action.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a great closer. He got his rhythm late after several trips to the line and directed their offense to perfection, and his drives to the hoop were basically unstoppable. He was more in control down the stretch of his offense than Nikola Jokic was of his and it made all the difference, considering Denver’s fourth quarter turnovers and clock struggles.

The Western Conference Finals are going to be fun. Denver, OKC, Minnesota, Dallas… It’ll be exciting. There will be prep work for both teams before they get there, and the rest of this season is making sure that Denver is ready in these situations to execute the game plan against these challengers to the throne.