Photo Credits: Coby Van Loan/OKC Thunder
Without star guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (knee) for the 3rd time in the last 5 games, the Oklahoma City Thunder were walloped by the skin of the Denver Nuggets’ teeth 97-95. This win elevated the Nuggets’ record to 14-11 on the season while the Thunder’s loss set them back to .400 on the year and pushed them a game back from the 13th seed, currently standing at 10-15.
The Oklahoma City Thunder imposed strikes early behind Al Horford and tenacious inside-play. Horford proved to be the team main option out the gate, as the 34-year-old helped weather a 6-0 Thunder run out the gate providing 7 of the team’s first 8 points and kept at it—finishing the period with 12 points off 5-of-6 shooting. Behind the big man was a host of collective inside play, that garnered 20 of the team’s 28 first quarter points off of 10-of-19 shooting (53%.) The Thunder’s pesky play on the other side of the ball is what moved them to a 12-point— 28-16 advantage through one as they rocked the Nuggets into 6 turnovers.
Oklahoma City continued to build up their lead in the second quarter— but not in the way you would think. The Thunder shifted game-styles, elevating their range from the inside shot to the outside from period one and two, connecting on 4-of-9 threes in the period. In this time, Justin Jackson became the team’s secret hand as he drew up 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting to run the table up to a 19-point Thunder lead, before slumping down to 53-40 via a 9-3 Nuggets run to cap off the half.
Poor shooting plagued Denver through the first two quarters, as they only surfaced 4-of-22 (18%) first half threes, with one of their makes coming from a miraculous one-legged Jokic three with 0.5 seconds left in the possession.
The Thunder’s penmanship from deep continued into the third as the team went on to drain three of their first five shots— but a strong Denver flurry sent Oklahoma City on high-alert. The Nuggets went into attack mode cutting the Thunder led to just 6 off of 18 points in the paint, but a surge from OKC moved their lead up to 12 with a few seconds to go. The final seconds of this quarter foreshadowed what was to come as Hamidou Diallo swatted Jamal Murray’s halfcourt-heave above the cylinder to shrink the Thunder’s lead to just 9.
Poor shooting in the early parts of the final quarter applied a major pitfall in the Thunder’s plans as their 1-for-10 shooting to open the period resulted in an 11-3 Nuggets run that enabled a one-possession contest with eight to go. Despite a small 6-0 Thunder burst, they never could shed the Nuggets off as they stuck around for the long-haul. The Nuggets were right on the doorstep of the game with two to go but two offensive rebounds from Kenrich Williams almost ensured a made bucket to force a two-possession game— no dice. Denver snowballed into a 5-0 run in the last minute to form a four-point lead— and a free-throw contest. After exchanging pleasantries, the Thunder were with the ball down four with 8.2 seconds to go. This situation would net a three-point attempt, right? Absolutely not as Lu Dort coasted his way into a free layup. Next Thunder possession, 2.6 to go with the ball advanced, this needs to be a three for any hope at a victory— they took a Darius Bazley layup as a compensation prize. Oklahoma City technically had a chance to win as RJ Hampton missed both his free throws on the other end, but with 0.7 seconds and no timeouts— the Thunder couldn’t get a shot off.
Oklahoma City (10-15) finished the night with four men in double-digit scoring. Justin Jackson made his plea for regular minutes as the 25-year-old forward notched his highest-scoring performance since 2019 with 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Al Horford and Hamidou Diallo shot an identical 6-of-15 for their 16 points, as Horford lost his touch early, giving up 22 points to Nikola Jokic, while Diallo played ultra-aggressive, resulting in him fouling out. Lu Dort still struggled to tack on threes in the game, going just 1-of-5, but he more than made up for it scoring 15 points on a combined 6-of-14 shooting. The sophomore had a field day on penetrations and helped to bottle up Jamal Murray who hit just 8-of-19 attempts. Kenrich Williams has continued to impress in the void of rookie Theo Maledon at the shooting-guard neared his first career triple-double, boasting 7 points (3-of-8 FG), 11 rebounds, and a career-high 9 assist on the night. Darius Bazley had sparse times of success on Friday, racking up 7 points on 2-of-9 shooting, but the forward has been vocal about working past his slump.
The Thunder will rest on Saturday before flying back to Oklahoma City (if it’s not Antarctica by then) to square off vs. the Milwaukee Bucks (16-10) on Sunday.