As the Nuggets prepared for their longest road trip of the first half of the season, they got the sendoff they needed Tuesday night against the Thunder.
Behind yet another special performance from Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets pounded the Thunder 119-101 at Ball Arena and improved to 7-7 on the season. Their next game, Friday at Phoenix, marks the start of a grueling five-game, nine-day trip.
But at least Tuesday, they could bask in a convincing victory and one they didn’t have to sweat out.
“All I’ve been pounding every day has been, when we defend, we win,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Like I told our players after the game, I know I sound like a broken record, but it’s so true.”
Jokic’s 27-point, 12-rebound, six-assist night lifted Denver as his star counterpart, Jamal Murray, struggled against suffocating defense. Murray managed just five points on 2-of-10 shooting.
With the game well in hand, no play elicited more joy from Denver’s bench than when Bol Bol took the ball the length of the court and finished a lanky tomahawk jam late in the fourth. Denver’s bench mob was still standing some two minutes after the dunk.
But what separated the Nuggets was their unselfishness. Every starter had at least three assists, and Monte Morris added five off the bench. Their ball movement kept the Thunder defense on a swivel, which led to a marked advantage inside. Denver dominated the paint with a 62-44 edge.
“I feel like we’re not all the way close-close (to our potential), but we’re inching, we’re climbing up the mountain,” Morris said. “That just shows how good we can be.”
Already in control, their third quarter Tuesday was one of their most all-encompassing efforts of the season. Denver crashed the glass, swarmed on defense and played unselfish basketball on the other end. Meanwhile, Jokic kept wiping the floor with whichever center the Thunder tried on him.
Neither Mike Muscala nor Isaiah Roby stood a chance against Jokic, whose flurry of post moves bewildered the defense. In one instance, Jokic cruised coast-to-coast for an uncontested layup.
“They didn’t have many answers for him down there,” Malone said.
And like the Nuggets did against the Jazz in Sunday’s loss, they pummeled the offensive glass. On Tuesday, they capitalized on those chances. Their 32-3 advantage on second-chance points was perhaps the most glaring stat of the night.
No play was more indicative than when Paul Millsap, surrounded by four Thunder players, managed the rebound and put-back. He finished the night with 13 points and 12 rebounds as the Nuggets stretched their lead to 97-74 heading into the fourth.
Malone didn’t outright admit that the Thunder’s success with a three-guard lineup last year influenced Denver’s decision to try it this season, but he came close. That lineup, built around Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, was devastating in their dynamic offensive approach.
“Yes, OKC, Dallas in the past, with guys like J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Yogi Ferrell,” Malone said. “So when we made the decision to bring a guy like Facu (Campazzo) over, knowing we had Monte (Morris) and P.J. (Dozier), we had a long, hard conversation about that. ‘If we don’t think we can play this way, let’s not do it. If we think we can play that way, then it’s worth trying.’
“I wouldn’t say inspiration from those guys, but you see, whether it was San Antonio, Dallas, Golden State and now OKC last year, the game is getting smaller and smaller, more playmakers, more versatility, and obviously we have a lot of that in our roster as well.”
The Nuggets started the game lackadaisical and almost disinterested on the defensive end. The Thunder took advantage of the opening, exposing awful transition defense, poor rotations and a general lack of awareness in protecting the hoop. Aside from Jokic’s dominance, hardly any of the starters looked prepared.
But once Denver turned to its bench, momentum swung drastically. The Nuggets flew around on defense and crashed the glass, leading to easy runout opportunities. One 15-0 run led by the reserves seized the lead before the starters finished the first half with a flurry. Their late energy, buoyed by a spurt of 3-pointers, gave the Nuggets a 65-52 edge heading into the break.
Jokic finished the first half with 19 points, eight rebounds and three assists, lifting his team out of a momentary malaise. Murray, hounded by Thunder wing Lu Dort, started slow, but was picked up by Denver’s bench.
Led by Dozier and Morris, the Nuggets’ reserves outscored the Thunder’s 21-9. Morris’ layup, off a through-the-legs pass by Campazzo, was the highlight of the half.
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