The Denver Nuggets traveled to Oklahoma City on Monday night for a quick, one-game road trip. A game that was in danger of becoming a blow out in the first came down to the the final play as Russell Westbrook sank the clinching free throw in a 95-94 Thunder victory.
Nikola Jokic was active but did not draw the start for the second consecutive game due to an ankle sprain. On the other hand, Steven Adams had entered the NBA’s concussion protocol, so the Thunder trotted out Dakar Johnson to start with Adams out, instead.
The Nuggets also started two-way player Torrey Craig for the second consecutive game. Malone handed him the assignment of Russell Westbrook so he could hide Jamal Murray on Andre Roberson. The move might have paid dividends in slowing down the Thunder’s half-court offense, but it was hard to tell as the Thunder spent seemingly most of the quarter in transition. Bricked shots and six first-quarter turnovers from Denver allowed Oklahoma City to get out and run, which is what they do best.
Nikola Jokic was Malone’s first sub off the bench, checking in around the 5:30 mark, but he couldn’t light a spark under his team as Denver struggled to get him the ball. The Nuggets trailed 32-18 after a miserable first 12 minutes of play.
In the second quarter, Denver suddenly remembered the importance of putting the basketball in the hands of their best player. Jokic played for the majority of the quarter and sparked an early 9-2 run which kept the Nuggets in a game that was starting to slip away from them.
Denver adjusted and forced the Thunder to operate in their struggling half-court offense by slowing the game down and protecting the basketball. They held Oklahoma City to 20 points in the quarter but they still trailed 52-44 at the half.
In the third, the starters improved upon their poor first quarter as they engineered an early 10-0 run to tie the game up at 54-54. Denver kept the pressure on defensively and grabbed their first lead of the game following a Wilson Chandler lay up with about five minutes remaining.
Jokic checked back in with a little over three minutes left and sparked an impressive 9-0 charge to close out the quarter. The quarter belonged to Torrey Craig though—the rookie hit all four of his shots from the field, including two three pointers to give the Nuggets an unexpected shot in the arm on offense. Denver reversed the first quarter scoring totals, outscoring the Thunder 32-18. The Nuggets led 76-70 after three.
Denver entered full on survival mode in the fourth as they endured an offensive onslaught from the reigning MVP. Westbrook sliced his way into the paint at will and Denver could do nothing to stop him. On a night when Denver’s star had it all going, Barton ignored Jokic on the other end of the floor and forced the issue for multiple possessions. The Nuggets’ offense stalled and Westbrook tied the game up at 92 with less than four minutes remaining.
With the game tied at 94, the Thunder possessed the ball with a little over 20 seconds remaining. As the clock wound down, Westbrook drove to the rim and drew a foul on Craig. He sank one of two free throws and Denver called timeout with just over one second remaining. Chandler struggled to find anyone on the ensuing inbounds play though and Harris was forced chucked up a shot that never had a chance as time expired.
Following the loss, the Nuggets fall to 16-14 on the year and 5-12 on the road. Denver will return home to host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.