Nuggets bench falls short in loss to Oklahoma City

Dec 22, 2021; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Luguentz Dort (5) dribbles the ball ahead of Denver Nuggets guard Facundo Campazzo (7) during the second half at Paycom Center. Oklahoma City won 108-94. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

Denver had been off since last Friday after its game against Brooklyn on Sunday was postponed due to a COVID outbreak. Over 100 players have entered the league’s health and safety protocols in the past two weeks, which has left teams scrambling to find players to sign on 10-day contracts and the NBA postponing games. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has no plans of pausing the season and said that teams would have to work around it and be prepared for anything.

The Nuggets starters did not come prepared on Wednesday night and it looked like the extra days off disrupted their flow. The bench, on the other hand, came out ready to play but couldn’t make up lost ground as the Nuggets fell to Oklahoma City 108-94. Regardless, head coach Michael Malone doesn’t like to make any excuses.

“I think a lot of people would love to use those readily available excuses but my question would be our bench had four days off too and they were able to somehow someway find a way to play hard,” Malone said. “And our starters, I wouldn’t say they didn’t play hard. We played in spurts but I don’t think we were ready to play and I don’t think we were ready to start the third quarter and that’s why I went to our bench early.”

The Thunder crushed the Nuggets on the glass outrebounding them 60-39. They also scored 62 points in the paint to the Nuggets’ 36 points. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander dominated the floor leading all scorers with 27 points on 10 of 24 shooting and added 11 rebounds and 12 assists. Darius Bazley had 17 points and 11 boards off the bench.

Oklahoma City had this game right at opening tip when it managed to score an uncontested 3 as soon as it got the ball. Malone knew his starters’ weren’t mentally there after that. Denver made a couple runs in the first quarter which looked promising but were down 28-18 at the end of one.

Bones Hyland helped fuel a 7-0 run to open the second quarter and cut OKC’s lead to three. He then hurt his ankle and was questionable for return. The Thunder responded with a 7-0 run of their own to take a ten point lead midway through the quarter. Gilgeous-Alexander scored seven of their 13 points down the stretch heading into halftime to go up 60-52.

The third quarter is where things got ugly. OKC outscored Denver 28-14 to take a 22-point lead. It also had a 21-9 rebound advantage. The Nuggets shot 25 percent from the field and 15 percent from 3-point range in the quarter, which is probably one of their worst quarters this season. It was just bad basketball all the way around and the Thunder led 88-66 going into the fourth.

“I was hoping to come out of the half to start the third quarter with a much greater sense of urgency but it just wasn’t there,” Malone said. “I really applaud the effort by our bench. Those guys went out there and competed and played hard and cut it to maybe eight or nine at one point which was fun to watch. That’s all I ever care about. Wins and losses matter I understand that. This is a results driven business but as a coach what I really care about is when you play and when you compete and when you play the right way. We didn’t have that from our starting group tonight. Our bench had it.”

Austin Rivers led the bench with 12 points and helped the Nuggets get back into the game by cutting their deficit to ten points late in the fourth quarter. He went 4 of 8 from the field. Facu Campazzo and Vlatko Cancar both added nine points. Denver’s bench managed to hold OKC to 23 percent shooting from the field and 10 percent shooting from three but the 22-point lead it built in the third quarter was too much for the Nuggets to overcome.

“We didn’t give up,” Cancar said. “The guys who got a chance to play I feel like we took advantage of every minute and also I got to give credit to the guys on the bench because they were all in my ear telling me to stay aggressive so a lot of credit goes to them even though they didn’t play good.”

Nikola Jokic didn’t have his best game and only scored 13 points on 5 of \9 shooting. He played nearly 25 minutes and only attempted nine shots, which is extremely rare. He did surpass 9,000 career points, though.

The Nuggets play again on Thursday night against the Charlotte Hornets before heading to California to face the Clippers and Warriors.

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