Nuggets blow 18-point lead, recover late to beat Thunder 99-95

Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers celebrate vs. OKC. Credit: Alonzo Adams, USA TODAY Sports.
Facundo Campazzo and Austin Rivers celebrate vs. OKC. Credit: Alonzo Adams, USA TODAY Sports.

The Denver Nuggets enjoyed an 18-point lead in the first quarter after shooting 60 percent from beyond the arc. But the Oklahoma City Thunder outscored them 29-19 in the third to take their first lead of the game. However, Denver clamped down defensively in the fourth and went to their veterans late to close it out and win 99-95.

Nikola Jokic had another monster game with 22 points, 18 rebounds and six assists. Jeff Green did work again off the bench scoring 16 points, but it was Austin Rivers’ hot hand off the bench that kept Denver afloat. He shot the lights-out from downtown going 6-9 for 22 points and helped fuel an 11-2 run to finish the game.

“I love being in the game at the end of the game,” Austin Rivers said. “It’s my favorite thing to do just when the pressure is on. Every play matters. It is fun to be in.”

Rivers is a 10-year NBA veteran and he’s all too familiar with late game pressure situations. As of late, Rivers has been struggling with his shot due to a thumb sprain. Opposed to the doctor’s recommendation to sit out, Rivers refuses to miss games.

“They said it was supposed to be something where I sit out 4-6 weeks but we just don’t have bodies and it wasn’t painful enough to where I felt like I couldn’t play so I’ve just been playing through it,” Rivers said. “It’s getting better and better so I feel more comfortable with it.”

Head coach Michael Malone was finally back on the floor after missing over a full week of games due to health and safety protocols. He was impressed with Rivers’ level of play on Sunday night and said he was both the offensive and defensive player of the game.

“When he was open he shot the ball and he shot it extremely efficiently for us but he was our defensive player of the game but he was also probably our offensive player of the game,” Malone said. “He was our Bud Light Player of the Game or maybe El Mejor Tequila Player of the Game, let’s go with that one instead.”

Malone was also satisfied with his players’ first half performance. He liked how they moved the basketball and collapsed the defense, but once again he was frustrated with their second half defense and getting stagnant on the offensive end of the ball.

“In the second half we started holding the ball,” Malone said. “We didn’t move, we didn’t drive collapse and kick, and that led to poor possessions and that’s a reason that we only scored 38 points in the second half. In the second half we had 11 assists, 9 turnovers for 10 points.”

Denver opened the first quarter with a 7-0 lead. The Nuggets then went up 12-4 and shot 4-5 from the field. Barton hit two 3-pointers early and had eight points in the quarter. Denver then extended its lead 17-4 while holding OKC to 2-9 shooting and 0-4 from downtown. The Nuggets took as much as an 18-point lead and shot six 3s in the quarter to go up 36-23.

Rivers got things going for Denver in the second quarter. He went 3-3 from long range and put up nine points in just under eight minutes of play. The Thunder stayed within striking distance and shot 50 percent from the field. They also forced three turnovers leading to four fast break points. Darius Bazley and Aaron Wiggins scored six points each off the bench. The Nuggets managed to hang onto the 61-49 lead going into halftime.

Luguentz Dort was the difference maker in the third quarter for OKC; he put on a clinic, scoring 11 of his 14 points. With 6:16 left, he hit a jumper to get the Thunder within three points and then tied the game at 72 with three minutes left to go in the quarter. OKC then took a 1-point lead after a Josh Giddey 3. The Thunder outscored the Nuggets 29-19 in the quarter but Denver managed to hang on to an 80-78 lead.

15-year veteran Jeff Green just came off a big game on Friday and continued shining for Denver off the bench. He opened the fourth with two straight buckets to give the Nuggets an 84-78 lead.

OKC made things rather difficult for Jokic, double and triple-teaming him every time he touched the ball. Denver made a costly turnover midway through the third allowing Kenrich Williams to get an easy fast break dunk to tie the game up at 87. OKC then went up by five points with 4:27 left in regulation. Malone called a timeout and the Nuggets closed out the game on an 11-2 run. Rivers hit a 3 and another bucket to take the 95-93 lead and Jokic and Barton knocked down a pair of free throws each to end the game.

“Like we’ve seen a lot lately, teams are double-teaming him,” Malone said of Jokic. “They’re basically daring us to make shots. Tonight it was great that we made 13 3s to try to keep them on us but when he did catch the ball in the post it was a steady double team all night. First half I think we handled that double team extremely well, second half we did not do a good job. They’re making it really hard for him to catch it in the post and that’s where we have to have much better awareness.”

The Nuggets have now won two games in a row and plan to continue that winning streak in Los Angeles against the Clippers on Tuesday. They will then play six straight games at home. They’re currently 20-18 on the season and sixth in the Western Conference.

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