DENVER — The mood around morning shoot-around on Tuesday in Denver was loose. With the Oklahoma City Thunder sitting at 38-21 and only three games back in the loss column for the second seed, Billy Donovan felt confident for the third matchup between his squad and that second seed — the Denver Nuggets.
“I feel like we’ve gotten better,” Donovan said on the floor of the Pepsi Center. “They’ve gotten better too, but I think we’ve evolved offensively. We’ve improved offensively. We haven’t scored over 100 points the last two times we’ve played them. They’ve been a very good team on both ends. It comes down to us being able to generate the shots we want to generate. ”
He’s correct. The Thunder and the Nuggets last played on December 14th. By that point (the 27th game), Oklahoma City was still in the basement in most, if not all shooting metrics. Paul George’s league’s Most Valuable Player campaign was still in its infancy stages, with his late-game heroics on the road against the Brooklyn Nets coming a week prior.
Since that second game against Denver, the Thunder are a much different team offensively. Players like Terrance Ferguson and Jerami Grant have emerged as not just reliable scorers and shooters, but impactful to the point that Oklahoma City has been the best three-point shooting team since January.
Despite OKC’s growth offensively — and their subsequent dip in defense at times — Tuesday night’s game went much the same as the first two. The Thunder lead early, get down by double-digits for most of the game until a late, desperate serge propels Oklahoma City to a chance to win. This ends in Denver making all the little plays on both ends to finally silence OKC.
Same story, different chapter. Denver appears to be the superior team. Three games, three similar plots, three wins.
That’s not to say the Thunder don’t have their chances moving forward. Last night’s game featured a new wrinkle employed by Donovan to combat Jokic’s ability to ruin Oklahoma City’s plans — Nerlens Noel.
The backup center saw extended duty in the second half with the Thunder trailing by 18. Noel, along with Markieff Morris, helped bring OKC back. Once the starters returned, Noel and Morris remained. After a made Russell Westbrook three, the Thunder led 100-97 with just under six minutes to play.
While there is some credence to the belief that a potential playoff series between these two teams could see more Noel as an advantage for the Thunder, don’t forget how those final six minutes went.
Key offensive rebound, key offensive rebound, turnover, missed box out, etc. Noel’s skills on the perimeter helped play a part in the Thunder’s demise.
“We had some guys leaving to go block shots, that probably wasn’t necessary to go block shots,” Donovan said after the loss. “That’s where you get vulnerable, when you leave to pull across when there’s a guy on the ball to go block the shot, if you don’t block it, you leave yourself open to offensive rebounds. (Paul) Milsap came up with two big ones.”
Even with an advantageous wrinkle, the Nuggets were still finish in a similar fashion to the previous two matchups. However, Noel fouled out at the 3:21 mark of the fourth quarter. Donovan later said he would have left him in.
Of course, everyone knows the postseason is a different animal than the regular season.
Markieff Morris said it best in the locker room when he took the optimistic approach of the Thunder’s 32 fouls, “I would rather it be that way. Sh**, let’s all foul out. Now we’re prepared for the playoffs, when they don’t call fouls.”
It is not impossible for the Thunder to defeat Denver. They have the ability to make adjustments, play better and beat Denver in a seven-game series. As it stands now, the Nuggets are the superior team. OKC’s goals of a deep playoff run and the fan base’s desire of a Western Conference Finals matchup with the Golden State Warriors should be put on hold until the Denver problem is solved.
If it can be, that is.