OKLAHOMA CITY – One team showed up Wednesday night. The other looked ready to be home after a bizarre two-game road trip.
The Thunder smacked the Nuggets, 108-94, on Wednesday night, to drop Denver back to .500 on the season. Following Sunday’s postponement at Brooklyn, the Nuggets were back on the court but were hardly ready to compete. Now 15-15, they’ll head home to face Charlotte on Thursday.
“This has been like the longest (two-game) road trip ever,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before the game.
The Thunder pummeled the Nuggets in the paint, 62-36, and dominated them on the glass, 60-39. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander carved up Denver’s defense for 27 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds.
As the deficit ballooned throughout the third quarter and into the fourth, Nikola Jokic sat. He ended the night with 13 points and seven rebounds in just 25 minutes.
“I really applaud the effort by our bench,” Malone said. “Those guys went out there and competed and played hard … That’s all I ever care about. … As a coach, what I really care about is when you play and you compete and you play the right way. We didn’t have that from our starting group.”
Denver’s reserves, led by 12 points from Austin Rivers, made the game respectable with an encouraging fourth-quarter response. The Nuggets’ bench shaved what was once a 23-point deficit to just 97-89 with 2:50 remaining, but there was no finishing kick.
“We just played hard,” Rivers said. “… We just did what we were supposed to do.”
The Thunder came in waves and didn’t relent. During one telling and deflating sequence in the third quarter, stocky guard Luguentz Dort crashed the offensive glass off his own miss and was rewarded with a 3-pointer moments later.
Down 77-61 at the time, Malone called a timeout to make a full shift change. All five starters headed to the bench as he looked to his reserves for a spark. Though the effort might’ve improved, the results didn’t.
Oklahoma City, having doubled up Denver 28-14 in the third, took a commanding 88-66 lead into the fourth quarter.
Like the rest of the NBA world, Malone saw commissioner Adam Silver state, unequivocally, that the league had no intention of pausing despite rising COVID cases.
“Not surprising,” Malone said. “The NBA is trying to push through it. I guess that’s their logic. All the testing begins the day after Christmas. We’re gonna get through this.”
After Sunday’s postponement, the Nuggets traveled to Oklahoma City on Monday where they had two days to kill. Monday night, according to Malone, around 20 staffers and coaches played pickle-ball for a few hours.
Asked how his short game was, Malone had no trouble boasting about his game: “I’ve got it all,” he joked.
On Tuesday, Aaron Gordon organized a team outing to the movies to watch the new Spider-man movie.
“Some of us took a nap during that, woke up in the middle of it and were still able to keep the plotline going,” Malone said.
Both outings represented the best of an imperfect circumstance ahead of Wednesday’s game.
The Thunder carried a 60-52 lead into halftime after shredding the Nuggets inside. Their 42 points in the paint represented a ghastly number and one that indicated defensive breakdowns on numerous levels.
Gilgeous-Alexander had a field day in the pick-and-roll, registering 19 points over the first two quarters.
Jokic, perhaps recognizing the urgency with Oklahoma City’s offense rolling, became more aggressive in the second quarter. He bullied his way inside, either lowering his shoulder for a bucket or dishing for an easy drop-off when the Thunder sent a double-team.
He finished the first half with 10 points, five rebounds and three assists. On one first-quarter dime, he slung the ball across the court with his off-hand and found Monte Morris in the corner for a sublime corner three.