What a game last night.

The Denver Nuggets ultimately lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder on 118-117 in heartbreaking fashion. After forcing a Nikola Jokic miss with just over 10 seconds left, Thunder MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander drained a tough turnaround jumper over the outstretched arms of Peyton Watson with 0.9 seconds left. The Nuggets had one more opportunity to generate a shot, but Chet Holmgren appeared to tip Jokic’s pass on the ensuing inbounds play (which should have started the game clock) and the ball never got to Aaron Gordon at the rim.

“That’s a pass Nikola usually makes in his sleep, but it shouldn’t have come down to that,” shared Michael Malone after the game. “They scored 33 points in the fourth quarter, and 20 of those came in our paint.”

On the night, Gilgeous-Alexander had 25 points on 9-of-20 from the field and 7-of-8 from the free throw line. It was a relatively pedestrian night for the Thunder star, especially through three quarters. Unfortunately for Denver, SGA came alive in the final frame and made plays on both ends to help the Thunder hand the Nuggets their second home defeat on the season.

The manner in which Denver lost this game was abnormal for the Nuggets. Throughout the fourth quarter, the Nuggets maintained control. Every time the Thunder pushed to tie or take the lead, the Nuggets answered with a run of their own. Until the final three minutes or so of the game, it felt like the Nuggets had it won. Unfortunately, Denver made too many mistakes with turnovers, and the Jamal Murray-Nikola Jokic two-man game didn’t generate enough baskets at the end of the game to keep pace with the Thunder.

“We had four turnovers in the fourth quarter for 10 points, a couple of those in transition where we played good defense, we’d gotten stops, we’re pushing the ball for advantage, we throw the ball out of bounds or lose the ball out of bounds,” Malone lamented.

In the final six minutes, the Nuggets committed three egregious turnovers which led directly to six points for the Thunder. Peyton Watson lost the ball on a transition drive while ahead of the defense, Justin Holiday threw a pass out of bounds where he assumed Christian Braun would be, who vacated the corner looking to set up halfcourt offense, and Michael Porter Jr. had the ball taken from his hands by SGA while waiting for Jokic to post up. Three important offensive possessions lost, and for a Nuggets team that often excels creating good shots with Jokic and Murray on the floor, those possessions meant a lot.

Jokic finished the game with 24 points, 12 assists, and six rebounds, a solid outing for him, though he shot just 3-of-9 in the second half. The Nuggets were a team worst minus-9 in Jokic’s minutes tonight, a rarity likely born out in circumstance, but something notable nonetheless.

Murray finished the game with just 15 points and five assists on 5-of-13 from the field and 0-of-6 from three-point range. Murray was knocked off his spot several times by the physicality of Luguentz Dort, including on one of the final possessions of the game when the Nuggets tried to run high pick and roll with Murray and Jokic. Dort and Chet Holmgren trapped Murray at the top of the key with nowhere to go, and the possession stalled out as a result.

Holmgren in particular appeared much more improved on the defensive end with an absurd nine blocks last night. His ability to change shots around the rim is extremely impressive, and the Nuggets clearly weren’t ready for that level of rim protection, especially in the final quarter.

Of course, the Nuggets still scored 117 points on the evening and would have been fine if the defense was good. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough.

“I think our biggest, most alarming stat tonight was our inability to guard 1-on-1. We had 24 blow-by’s for 37 points,” Malone expressed.

Jalen Williams, in addition to SGA, was an issue for the Nuggets down the stretch. Williams created four baskets for the Thunder while driving to his left hand, something the Nuggets had clearly picked up on film and were hoping to slow down prior to the game. Unfortunately, the Nuggets allowed him to get to his left hand anyway, and the second year forward out of Santa Clara made the Nuggets pay over and over again.

“They do a really good job of getting downhill,” shared Christian Braun. “A lot of it is just knowing which way a guy likes to go, how they like to play, so that’s definitely what probably lost us the game today, especially in the fourth quarter. They made tough shots, and they’re a good team with good individual players, but we did a better job on them last time.”

The Nuggets certainly could have, and probably should have, won this game. It was a nice measuring stick contest for both teams, and it probably says more about the Thunder being an elite team than it says about the Nuggets having questions. Without Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Denver’s best and most reliable perimeter defender, the Nuggets played different lineup combinations down the stretch, and that probably hurt Denver on both sides of the floor, looping in some other players like Justin Holiday and Peyton Watson that simply don’t have as much time played with the Nuggets down the stretch of close games. That will improve over time.

But still, it never feels good to do all of the work to win a game only for it to slip through the cracks. The Nuggets simply have to be better and more precise in a close game, a hallmark of their team for a long time but a problem for the Nuggets starters of late. Let’s see if they can bounce back.

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