Denver made the big plays to complete season sweep of Thunder
Russell Westbrook drove the lane and spun home one of those baskets like he has so many times, and you thought maybe the Thunder had a chance.
Down only two possessions with three-plus minutes left.
After the Nuggets scored on the next possession, Westbrook drove again and made again, and you still believed that maybe this was the night that Oklahoma City beat Denver for the first time this season and ended this maddening up-and-down, back-and-forth trend.
Nuggets 115, Thunder 105.
The Nuggets scored on four of the last five possessions that they tried. By the end, they had mercy on the Thunder and just let the shot clock run out.
On a night when Oklahoma City missed an opportunity to clinch a playoff spot, the Thunder instead got a cruel reminder. The Nuggets are a dangerous offensive team with unique players that also plays some really good defense, too.
The Nuggets are what the Thunder hopes to be again one day.
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Wasn’t all that long ago the Thunder looked like a team that could contend, that could actually take down the Warriors in the West.
Now the Nuggets look like a team that could do that.
Say this much for the Thunder – it has played the Nuggets close every game this season. Every game has been within a couple possessions late, but Friday, just as happened in the first three games, the Nuggets made the plays they had to make late.
After that first Westbrook drive that cut the Denver lead to 105-99, Nikola Jokic scored on a nifty little pop shot on a pass from Jamal Murray.
After the second Westbrook drive, it was Jokic again, this time driving Steven Adams to the basket.
Jokic finished with 23 points and 16 rebounds. The Denver big man is simply a splendid player, skilled and adept with the basketball but able to use his broad frame when needed.
He is the Nuggets’ star.
But they have so many other phenomenal players, and as if on cue on the next Denver possession, Murray provided a reminder. After the Thunder switched a screen and Adams ended up on Murray, he dribbled behind the 3-point line on the left wing and pump faked. Adams went up. Murray held firm.
Once Adams was out of the play, Murray let fly.
It was one of 14 makes from behind the three-point line for Denver. OKC did a decent job guarding the line, getting defenders out to the shooters and trying to get a hand in their faces, but the Nuggets made the Thunder pay when they got open looks.
And several times, they made difficult shots.
Denver hit 14 of 33 from behind the arc, and any time a team shoots better than 40 percent from there, it makes them almost impossible to beat.
Eight Nuggets hit threes, led by Murray, who hit three and finished with 27 points.
“They made some tough ones down the stretch,” Westbrook said. “That’s what good teams do.”
But the thing is, as good as the Nuggets were offensively, they knuckled down on the defensive end late in the game, too. Took a charge on a Jerami Grant drive, then forced a one-and-done possession when they gobbled up a Westbrook miss.
For all Denver’s firepower, it has the best fourth-quarter defense in the league.
“When you can rely on your defense and get timely stops,” Denver coach Mike Malone said, “that’s going to make you a viable candidate to win.”
Denver is extremely viable.
“I thought our guys really battled and fought,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought they gave incredible effort.”
But when the other guys give great effort plus have better offense and better defense, that’s a difficult mountain to climb. The Nuggets proved to be as tough as climbing Mount Everest for the Thunder this season.
It makes you wonder when the Thunder will again present that kind of challenge for opponents.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.