Nuggets outgun the Thunder, 114-104

BOX SCORE

“We always score enough points to win.”

That’s something Scott Brooks said postgame after the Thunder watched the Nuggets run them out of their own building in the second half to pick up a 13th straight win.

Brooks’ overall point is sound. Typically, the Thunder have the appropriate offensive firepower needed to win. Assuming the defense plays close to its standard, behind Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the points are almost a given. And tonight, 104 seems good on the surface. Except OKC’s offensive efficiency was just 102.3, well below the season average of 110.7. The game was played at a breakneck pace of 103.7, meaning on their home floor, the Thunder fell into the trap of playing Denver’s game. And eventually, couldn’t keep up.

“It’s easy to fall into that trap. That’s what they do,” said Durant. “They get up and down the court. Our game is a little different. We want to run, but we want to run off our defense. Those guys run off makes, off misses of course, off turnovers, but they continually run and pass the ball well and score a lot in the paint. We fell into the trap and couldn’t play that game with them. You got to give them credit. They played well.”

At halftime, the Thunder led 66-65 as Durant and Westbrook tag-teamed with 18 each, along with Kevin Martin who broke out of his shell a bit for 12 first half points. Running with Denver was no problem.

Things changed out of the locker room though as the Nuggets started the second half on a 15-4 run to assume control of the game. The Thunder made just 6-of-20 from the floor in the third, with Durant and Westbrook combining for just eight points on 3-11 shooting. It put the Thunder in a hole, one that certainly wasn’t too much to overcome. Reggie Jackson provided a late third quarter spark and eventually after Westbrook checked back in with about seven minutes left in the fourth, OKC had Denver’s lead down to five with four minutes left.

“I think we set the tone early on, but we just couldn’t sustain it,” Durant said. “We were playing catchup after that third. You don’t want to slow the game down too much when you’re down 13 with seven or eight minutes to go. I thought we kept fighting. We cut it to five, but just couldn’t get over the hump.”

It’s a disturbing loss not just because it clearly establishes that the Nuggets a legitimate team to fear in the Western Conference playoff picture, but because again in a big game against a high caliber opponent, the Thunder looked lost on both ends at times. After dominating Dallas, Serge Ibaka was a complete no-show, only grabbing two rebounds in 24 minutes. Martin only scored two points in the second half. And the Thunder watched as the Nuggets shredded them for 72 points in the paint. It was a weak performance.

And here’s what you have to top it all off with: The Nuggets were playing their second game of a back-to-back, and not only that, they played an overtime game the night before. This loss means the Thunder went 1-3 against Denver this season, with one of those coming in their own backyard, somewhere only one other Western Conference team has won (Memphis).

The losses to Miami and San Antonio really haven’t worried me all that much, but this is a game that gives me pause. The Thunder clearly appeared to be missing something. They didn’t have that added spark, that little nudge to give them a second wind to combat Denver’s transition onslaught. In the past, Ibaka has been able to neutralize Denver’s paint-focused offense and while he had three blocks, he was a complete non-factor inside. Durant and Westbrook were pretty good, but with a weakened defense, they couldn’t provide OKC enough. It’s become a bit of a trend against the really good teams. It’s worrisome.

With about a month to go before the playoffs, what we’re looking at here is either one of two things: 1) The Thunder have holes that could burn them in the postseason or 2) they’re a little bored and will ratchet things up to another level in the playoffs. I want to convince myself it’s the latter, but the facts are scary. Against Miami, San Antonio, Denver and Memphis, the Thunder are now 3-8. They’re 40-10 against everyone else. Last season, they went 6-5 against those four teams.

The good news is (or maybe bad), the Thunder have a crack at the Grizzlies tomorrow night and one more against the Spurs. And of course, the Thunder’s postseason life is promised. But the road to the Western Finals might not be paved in Thunder blue anymore. OKC has its work cut out and the margin for error is slimmer than ever.

NOTES:

  • George Karl on the win: “I’m realistic, our team, we’re hot. The momentum of being a hot team could go away as quickly [as it came].”
  • It seemed to me that lineup wise, Scott Brooks really had no plan against Denver tonight. The lineup that finished the game — Jackson, Westbrook, Thabo, Durant and Collison — was maybe his best five. That lineup was one of only a few that finished as a plus (+6). The only lineup that fared better was Westbrook, Martin, Durant, Collison and Perkins (+8). The worst lineup on the night was the starting five, who was a -17, and mostly because of the way the second half started.
  • I had a lot of people immediately blaming Perk for Denver’s hot second half start. I agree that Perk’s value against the Nuggets isn’t that significant, but I don’t really think it was Perk’s fault that Westbrook and Durant started the third 2-10 from the field.
  • Reverend Jesse Jackson was in the house tonight. Evidently he’s in OKC for some trial thing and decided to come to the game. He spoke with Clay Bennett and most of the Thunder roster after the game.
  • How about the good Reverend Reginald Jackson tonight? His offensive spark late in the third was completely needed and he was a bright spot in the fourth. The Thunder are sort of figuring out how to play Jackson on the fly, but I liked the look of having him in the game to exchange possessions with Westbrook late. Jackson got 19 minutes tonight, which was good, but it still seems like Brooks is reluctant to trust him with any sort of extended time. Maybe Reggie just needs grow a beard. That’s probably the problem.
  • After Jackson provided that nice little bump late in the third, Derek Fisher checked in to start the fourth and snuffed out said spark like he was a strong wind.
  • This Fisher thing really has got to stop. I mean, think about it: Scott Brooks has answered every question about the lack of playing time for guys like Perry Jones, Ronnie Brewer and Jeremy Lamb with “There are only so many minutes to go around and we’re really deep.” And yet, somehow, 10-15 minutes a night have been carved out for Derek Fisher.
  • Only explanation: Scott Brooks doesn’t want to burn Jeremy Lamb’s redshirt. I guess that makes sense.
  • And then Brooks put Lamb in with 35 seconds to waste a year of eligibility. Darn it all.
  • I was going to ask Brooks postgame about the reason for Fisher instead of Lamb (or Brewer), but I already know the answer. It’s not worth it. He would say something like “We like all our guys. We like Jeremy a lot. We’re a deep team. But there aren’t a lot of minutes to go around. We know Russell and KD will get close to 40, but with those other guys, it’s hard to get them time. Fish gives us great toughness and defense. We like what he brings to the floor.”
  • First game in a long time I can remember Martin scoring in double-figures in the first half. And then he scored two points in the second half. And got only 24 total minutes, 11 coming in the second half.
  • Jackson’s dunk on JaVale McGee was fun.
  • Serge Ibaka didn’t have a single defensive rebound. Kenneth Faried had five offensive rebounds. That’s bad.
  • The Nuggets quietly lead the league in male pattern baldness.
  • Ibaka got cut open by a stray elbow from Reggie Jackson early in the fourth. He was OK, but he definitely bleed out pretty good. Which means Ibaka now has zero fully functioning eyes.
  • I’ll tell you what, Derek Fisher is some kind of a pregame 3-point shooter. He probably hit 28 out of 30 when I was watching.
  • Ronnie Brewer played some random first half minutes. Five, in fact. And then he disappeared forever, like a fart in the wind.
  • The halftime show was a boyband duo called the Capital Kings. I have serious Capital King fever.
  • When KD misses a free throw, I get the sads.
  • The guy that attempted the halfcourt shot tonight basically used a set shot. Shockingly, he came up about 20 feet short.
  • In the first half, OKC’s bench sort of held its own with Denver’s getting outscored 28-16. It ended up 47-27 in favor of Denver.
  • Hasheem Thabeet’s yellow jacket. Yo.

Next up: At Memphis Wednesday night.

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