Nuggets’ free throw woes snap winning streak in loss to Thunder

When the Nuggets take flight for their upcoming road trip, they’ll only have themselves to blame for not carrying a 10-game winning streak with them.

Denver’s free throw shooting was abysmal Sunday against the Thunder, and it cost them in a 101-99 loss. The Nuggets connected on just 17 of 33 from the line and Jamal Murray missed a jumper at the buzzer that would’ve sent the game to overtime. Instead, it snapped their winning streak at nine.

“It happens,” Nuggets acting head coach David Adelman said of the free throw shooting. That being said, he was by no means dismayed by his team’s resolve.

“I couldn’t be happier with the guys’ effort,” he said.

But without Nikola Jokic, who missed the contest with a hamstring injury, and Michael Porter Jr., who sat due to personal reasons, the Nuggets’ margin for error was too slim. They shot just 3 for 10 from the line in the fourth quarter. In better news, Adelman said Jokic was “close” to playing.

Murray poured in 26 points and dished nine assists to follow up his first career triple-double last game.

“We stayed together,” said Murray, disclosing that the team had healthy dialogue in the postgame locker room.

The Nuggets fell to 33-14 on the year with another game Tuesday at New Orleans on deck.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander paced the Thunder with 34 points, including the game-seizing bucket with 10 seconds remaining.

Making Sunday’s result even more frustrating was that Denver’s defense clamped down in the fourth quarter, limiting the Thunder to just 20 points.

Starting in place of Jokic, Zeke Nnaji was tremendous. He finished with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the loss. He also buried two clutch free throws to tie the game at 99.

“Nothing was in my mind,” Nnaji said. “Kept it empty, like it was practice.”

In desperate need of energy to start the second half, the Nuggets found it in a handful of physical finishes that jumped the offense. Murray finished a smooth reverse layup, Aaron Gordon powered through contact for two difficult buckets, and Nnaji injected life into the game. His energy, on both of the court, was impactful. Nnaji swatted two Thunder shots and buried a 3-pointer to help swing the game. He and rookie Christian Braun were both effective, but the Thunder converted on two key second-chance opportunities to stymie momentum.

Trailing 81-74 entering the fourth, the Nuggets had to be cleaner defensively to keep their winning streak alive.

Adelman knew Sunday’s task would be that much harder without Jokic, even if recent history suggested they could still maintain the same framework of their typical offense.

“I do think we can still do some of those things with Aaron, Jeff (Green), Vlatko (Cancar) off the bench,” Adelman said. “Those guys, they are good on the elbow. They’re not making the Wilt Chamberlain pass, but they can play there comfortably and that allows us to have some variety with how we play so we are not so pick-and-roll heavy.”

Perhaps more pressing, though, was their extended winning streak and the complacency that Adelman acknowledged could be a factor.

“You have to stay on task with how you’re doing it,” he said prior to the game.

For a half, the Nuggets lost their way. The 38-assist offensive masterpiece they authored on Friday night was a thing of the past. With little ball movement and stagnant offense, the Nuggets entered halftime down 52-47 to the Thunder. Their nine assists over the first two quarters spoke volumes.

Only Murray found any rhythm, entering halftime with 16 points on 10 shots. But even some of his offense was forced against the Thunder zone as no one could create for themselves. The beautiful, unselfishness that had come to define Denver’s attack was more an offensive slog over the first two quarters.

Despite numerous defenders that offered quality contests, Gilgeous-Alexander was a force. He slipped inside the lane at every opportunity and ended the first half with 18 points.

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