With the preseason coming to a close, both the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Denver Nuggets cleared house as starters in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Lu Dort, Darius Bazley, and Derrick Favors missed check-in for the Thunder-side while Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr., and Monte Morris had been absent from Thursday’s contest. Despite Denver’s narrow rotation, their lack of experience became their pitfall sliding to the Nuggets 113-107.
Mark Daigneault toyed around with the starting unit Thursday surrounding their lone true starter in Josh GIddey with Theo Maledon, Tre Mann, Aaron Wiggins, and Mike Muscala. The experimentation paid off instantly as the Thunder opened play with a perimeter-centric, pass-first mentality, resulting in wide-open jumpers, and a 6-0 start via the perimeter. Oklahoma City’s knack at shooting from distance continued throughout the early portion of the frame as a Mike Muscala pick-and-pop posted a 12-7 lead and their fourth-consecutive triple to kick things off. The Nuggets crept back into a single possession game seven minutes in, forcing the Thunder inside while replicating their opponent’s success from downtown. This beam of light quickly faded away, however, as successive threes from Ty Jerome and Aaron Wiggins halted the hot streak, and eventually gouged a 10-point lead for Oklahoma City off a 13-3 stint. After coughing off two late jumpers, the Thunder mounted a 30-26 lead through one. In all, 28 three-point shots were attempted in the period.
The second quarter cast the light onto Aleksej Pokusevski as the sophomore orchestrated Oklahoma City’s offense the entire frame. The forward caught a quick wind from deep, canning a 27 and 28 footer in a minute-long span, only to sneak back into the scoring column a few minutes later. The 19-year-old dazzled off 11-consecutive Thunder points at his highest utilizing dribble-hand-offs and sagged off defenders to bury looks up top. Poku’s precision wavered in his 12 minutes, resulting in the Nuggets taking the lead in the latter stages, despite this, the Serb continued to pester Denver, eventually leading to a block from Bol Bol after a whistle and a brief meeting of the minds. By the quarter’s end, Pokusevski accrued 13-of-20 team points and held them in striking distance down 56-50.
Oklahoma City narrowly grazed the 40-percent mark through the first half, but a 10-of-24 effort from distance cast life into the roster. Aleksej Pokusevski’s 13-point quarter remained the story as no other Thunder member notched double-digits by half. In the case of the Nuggets, their shot percentages reflected that of a blowout shooting in the mid-50s from the floor while taking a commanding perimeter stand, going 11-of-20.
The Thunder entered the second half with the same calling card as the first — spread the ball. Oklahoma City assisted on five of their first six field goals, three of which via Josh Giddey, gunning out a 16-7 run and the lead five minutes in. Bol Bol reclaimed the lead for Denver following two points of his own but eight-consecutive Thunder points in the paint cut Malone’s crew off. The tumultuous game of back-and-forth continued as the third period digressed, ultimately ending with the Thunder on the high side 83-77.
Both sides attempted to tango on jumpers for the onset of the fourth quarter, however, for Oklahoma City, they needed to make a quick compromise. The Thunder failed to nail a single jumper, two-or-three, for the first seven minutes of play. Instead, the Thunder found refuge from the layups and the charity stripe for their downtime, a move in which pillaged some success — leading 95-94 with five remaining. For the Nuggets, their opening segment also put a major emphasis on shooting, but unlike the Thunder, they salvaged results, canning three triples and eight Markus Howard points leading into clutch time. In the wake of clutch time, DJ Wilson drained the Thunder’s first three of the quarter, only to have the lead sliced to two a feeble 30 seconds later. As the game approached two minutes, Daigneault gave the reins to guard Ty Jerome in the halfcourt as the 24-year-old consistently whittled the clock down before going up for shots. Jerome’s antics proved monumental late as the guard sunk in a 10-foot fadeaway to put the Thunder up four and hit big on the very next play, sticking a standing layup to put Oklahoma City up six with a minute. Following a shaky Denver inbound, Nah’Shon Hyland attempted and drained a quick-fire three to cut the margin to three, and with a Jerome miss 20 seconds later, hope was vast in the Mile High City. Off a Denver rebound, Hyland elected to take the ball coast-to-coast going up before Aaron Wiggins swooped in for a chasedown block, in the squirmish for the ball Vlatko Cancar collected and promptly dished the ball out to an open Markus Howard — tie ball game. With 4.2 seconds to go, the Thunder advanced the ball slicing a pass to a cutting Gabriel Deck, however, the Argentinian failed to corral the ball, dribbling off his foot with one second to go. On the Nuggets side, a botched inbound led to an Aleksej Poksuevski steal, and an added period.
The overtime period opened quietly with a hasty Gabriel Deck layup, though at the four-minute mark, the unthinkable occurred — Markus Howard took over. Following the game-tying bucket, Markus Howard hit a pullup 26-footer to reclaim the lead before finding the identical result on the very next play off a left-wing catch-and-shoot. Howard emulated that of a video game late as the guard garnered immediate pressure and was giddily running the perimeter in hopes of receiving the ball. Things looked up for the Thunder after an Aleksej Pokusevski three trimmed the game to one, but as Howard found the ball in transition, he made his mark, pacing up the floor for a 31-foot bank-shot that inserted a figurative dagger. Oklahoma City attempted three straight threes in their final effort, but a Denver rebound ended all signs of life — falling 113-107.
The big story from Thursday’s contest gravitated around three-point land. The Thunder opened the evening shooting 10 of their first 16 shots from distance while ending the evening with 47-of-96 (48.9%) from behind the line. The Thunder’s prominence from distance faded past the first frame as they ended the game shooting 5-of-31 (16.1%), ultimately causing the late-game squander.
For the Nuggets, their victory is accredited to sophomore Markus Howard as the guard run away with this game finishing the night with 31 points off a ripe 11-of-22 (9-of-17 3PA) shooting clip. The guard caught fire with 23 points across the second half and overtime and sparked a near unconscious outing, containing his play to one-on-one matchups heavily resulting in points. As for other impressors, Bol Bol racked up a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds while clogging the paint with 3 blocks.
Aleksej Pokusevski saved his best for last in preseason play spurring up 22 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists across 38 minutes. The Serb had his confidence meter on overdrive as he did not shy away from the three-ball (4-of-9 3PT), even hoisting four during overtime. Poku’s decline late is understandable as he placed 38 minutes, however, even with the rotten ending, he went an uber-efficient 9-of-16 off the bench. Poku’s play Thursday hosted a microcosm for last year’s slate of highlights as he routinely stuck split-second triples, slipped inside for backdoors and driving layups, and ran deep into his bag for dribble moves and passes. In his biggest moment, the 19-year-old enacted that of an NBA Arcade title, hitting a left-to-right behind-the-back at the left-wing before gathering and diming a left-handed behind-the-back pass to a corner-sitting Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. Once Robinson-Earl had possession, he subsequently hit a cutting Pokusevski for a wide-open shot under-the-basket. Given Poku’s remarkable pace on that play, Denver’s defense had been dazed, and even those in attendance needed extra footage to comprehend the flashy two.
Ty Jerome completed his preseason with his best contribution adding 16 points and 7 assists in 28 minutes. Jerome had a shaky time with his hallmarked limitless three (2-of-8 3PT), but he did excel in slashing and harvesting fouls, sticking four throughout play. Jerome’s slow, yet articulate playstyle provided a sweet change-of-pace for Thursday as his handling made for a heap of drive-and-dish scenarios.
Mike Muscala banded together a steady end-cap, sourcing 14 points and 4 rebounds in his lone starting appearance. Muscala only shot 3-of-11 attempts from distance, but the stark change in his shot distribution did back the fact he is a trusty interior piece in limited minutes.
Josh Giddey nearly grazed the triple-double mark, logging 13 points (6-of-13 FG), 9 rebounds, and 8 assists in 28 minutes. Giddey’s time as the number one option, due to SGA’s absence, led to a massive amount of reps controlling the halfcourt and pacing, but it also opened up some learning moments. At one point in the contest, Giddey had been pulled to the sideline and instructed by Mark Daigneault to box out the free throw shooter, Bol Bol, that he did, even though the shot went in. Giddey’s brief time learning with the franchise has reflected on the scorecard with continuous progression throughout the preseason, and the new now lies in the Aussie blossoming for in-season play.
Theo Maledon completed the double-digit quintet posting 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists in 24 minutes. Maledon played in a more reserved role likened to his infancy stages last season, but it didn’t stop the 20-year-old from impacting the game from multiple aspects shooting 2-of-4 on threes and dishing out multiple cross-court passes.
The Oklahoma City Thunder will take a week of absence before returning next Wednesday against the Utah Jazz for the onset of their regular season.