10:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Nuggets -3, Over/Under: 238
With the All-Star Break firmly in the rearview mirror, all eyes are on the race to the Playoffs and the teams jockeying for positioning in the always convoluted Western Conference, as two such franchises, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Denver Nuggets meet tonight at Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. After winning eleven of thirteen outings heading into the Break, the Thunder (38-21, 3rd in Western Conference) have since emerged from that intermission sluggishly, splitting their last two contests in the most thrilling of fashions, proving victorious in an epic 148-147 Double Overtime Win over the Utah Jazz, and falling just short in a 116-119 defeat to the Sacramento Kings. Indeed, as close as they affairs were, the highs and lows that Oklahoma City experienced couldn’t have been any different. Against Utah, who eliminated them in last year’s First Round of the Playoffs, Billy Donovan’s charges rallied by back from double-digit deficits on multiple occasions throughout the night, forcing extra time twice, culminating in Paul George’s (28.7 PTS, 45.1% FG, 40.3% 3FG, 8.1 REB, 4.2 AST, 2.2 STL, 24.7 PER) climactic game-winning floater over the outstretched arm of Rudy Gobert to earn the triumph. It was the perfect exclamation point for a performance in which the MVP candidate posted totals of Forty-Five Points on 17-of-31 shooting from the field (54.8%), including 5-of-13 from three (38.5%), Nine Rebounds, Seven Assists, and a Steal, while his running mate Russell Westbrook (22.5 PTS, 42.3% FG, 26.8% 3FG, 11.3 REB, 11.0 AST, 2.2 STL, 21.0 PER) saw his insane streak of eleven consecutive games recording a Triple-Double come to an end, despite very nearly extending that run with Forty-Three Points on 15-of-29 shooting (51.7%), including 6-of-13 from downtown (46.2%), Fifteen Rebounds, Eight Assists, Two Steals, and a Block before fouling out midway through the first Extra Period. In a game in which both teams were well rested coming out of the Break and proceeded to pile up the stats, the biggest difference in it’s outcome was Turnovers, which proved absolutely costly to the visiting side, who despite dishing out a healthy Thirty-Three Assists, committed a whopping Twenty-Five Turnovers, which helped lead to thirteen more possessions for the hosts, who coincidentally turned those mistakes into a decisive Thirty Points. That victory marked a season sweep of the Jazz, while also extending the Thunder’s winning streak at Chesapeake Energy Arena to a seven games, though that stretch would unfortunately come to an end the following night.
As energized as Oklahoma City looked in the first contest after the All-Star Break, they sure looked gassed on the second night of a Back-to-Back, particularly after enduring a Double-Overtime affair in the First Leg We wouldn’t argue with you if chalked this one up to scheduling, but either way, it was undeniable that the home side looked lethargic from the jump in their loss to the Kings, who pounced on them early, taking a 63-49 lead into Halftime, and led by as much as Sixteen Points in the Third Quarter. Granted, the Thunder finally found their second wind in the final stanza, storming back on the strength of Westbrook’s Forty-One Points on an efficient 15-of-30 shooting form the floor (50.0%), including 5-of-12 from beyond the arc (41.7%), Ten Rebounds, and Four Assists, only to come up just short as George’s potential game-tying Three-Pointer at the buzzer went awry. On the night, Donovan’s troops shooting reflected their fatigued visage, netting just 38.1% of their attempts from the field, and forcing just Nine Turnovers on the defensive end of the court, which is well below their league-leading average of 17.5 per Game. The aforementioned George particularly looked gassed throughout the night, totaling just Fourteen Points on a miserable 4-of-19 shooting (21.1%). Here’s to hoping that two days of rest is exactly what the doctor ordered, for tonight’s trip to Denver figures to be a crucial one for a variety of reasons; the Nuggets currently lead the Thunder by Three Games in both the Northwest Division and Western Conference Standings, and given that Oklahoma City has come up short in each of their previous two meetings with their division rival (98-105 at Chesapeake Energy Arena back on November 24th, and 98-109 at Pepsi Center on December 14th), a third successive defeat will see any tiebreaker swing to Denver’s advantage.
Meanwhile, it seems that the All-Star Break did the Nuggets (41-18, 2nd in Western Conference) a wealth of good, for they have thus far bookended the intermission with a pair of victories, bringing their current run to four consecutive wins after a disappointing stretch in which they dropped three in a row. That was in large part due to injuries, and Mike Malone’s charges wisely used the Break as an opportunity to get healthy before embarking on the stretch run of the campaign. Given their unexpectedly stellar start to the season, winning nine out of their first ten contests in route to a 21-9 mark through Mid-December, many have openly wondered just how good this team was, and if they in fact possessed the staying power to truly challenge the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference hierarchy. However, with roughly a quarter of the schedule remaining, Denver has proven to be a persistent threat to the Warriors’ continued dominance of the West, trailing the two-time Defending Champions in the Standings by just a single game at the moment. Very much the proverbial New Kids on the Block in the mighty Western Conference, where exactly have the Nuggets come from you ask? Well, for all intents and purposes, this a team that built itself the old-fashioned way: drafting and developing players. Possessing plenty of youth, size, athleticism, balance, and depth, Mike Malone and his Staff have done a commendable job of developing the young players that have formed the core of this team. Sharpshooting Guards Jamal Murray (18.1 PTS, 42.9% FG, 36.5% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 5.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 15.0PER) and Gary Harris (14.6 PTS, 42.6% FG, 31.9% 3FG, 3.0 REB, 2.6 AST, 1.0 STL, 13.7 PER) were each the result of strong Draft Hauls, while All-Star Center Nikola Jokic (20.4 PTS, 50.5% FG, 30.7% 3FG, 10.8 REB, 7.7 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.6 BLK, 26.8 PER) has rounded into one of the more versatile forces in the league. However, what has made this particular iteration of the Nuggets so intriguing is that they’re very much a departure from the successful teams that preceded them, who relied heavily upon a relentlessly up-tempo style of play predicated on taking advantage of the high altitude native to their region. Instead, these Nuggets play a far more conventional half-court game, utilizing Jokic as a playmaker out of the Post and at the top of Key. Just check out these numbers for further confirmation of this throwback style that Malone has preferred; Denver ranks third-to-last in terms of Pace, averaging 97.8 Possessions per 48 Minutes (28th Overall) and a middling 112.2 Points (17th Overall), but as a result has seen their efficiencies spike considerably, ranking Eighth in Field Goal Percentage (47.1%), Thirteenth in Three-Point Shooting (35.5%), and Tenth in Two-Point Shooting (53.2%), while taking much better care of the basketball with just 13.6 Turnovers per Game (5th Overall) and dishing out 27.7 Assists (4th Overall). Furthermore, the fewer possessions has led to a more consistent effort on the defensive end, yielding 106.8 Points (5th Overall).
When last we saw them, the Nuggets were busy making short work of the Los Angeles Clippers in an easy 123-96 victory at home. The hosts led 64-56 at Halftime, but pushed the outcome out of question in the Second Half, where they outscored the visiting side 59-40. Jokic, despite being saddled with his fourth foul in the Second Quarter, managed to total a team-high Twenty-Two Points on 9-of-16 shooting (56.3%), with Sixteen Rebounds, Three Assists, Three Steals, and a Block, while Paul Millsap (12.5 PTS, 49.1% FG%, 35.4% 3FG, 7.0 REB, 1.9 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.9 BLK, 19.1 PER) added Twenty-One Points on 8-of-13 shooting (61.5%), Sixteen Rebounds, Two Assists, Three Steals, and a pair of Blocks. The aforementioned Harris, who has missed the previous seven consecutive games with a strained right adductor, chipped in with Fourteen Points on 4-of-8 shooting (50.0%) in just 21:49 minutes of action, while veteran Point Guard Isaiah Thomas (11.3 PTS, 39.3% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 1.3 REB, 2.7 AST, 1.3 PER) continued his long return back from offseason hip surgery, scoring Ten Points off the Bench. As a team, the Nuggets shot a blistering 51.8% from the field, including 12-of-34 from beyond the arc (35.3%), assisting on Thirty of their Forty-Four Feld Goals. Six different players finished in double-figures scoring, while Denver also manhandled Los Angeles on the glass (Plus-18), particularly on the offensive end (Plus-5). Now it’s on to the Thunder, who as we mentioned earlier have fallen to Malone’s troops twice already this season. In those two previous meetings, Denver did a tremendous job of keeping Oklahoma City confined in the Half-Court, were they managed to relegate them to just 98.0 Points on 38.3% shooting from the field, including 27.6% from downtown, while also proving to be one of the few teams that contend with them on the glass, outrebounding them by an average margin of 2.5 Boards per Game.