August 3: Denver Nuggets 121, Oklahoma City Thunder 113
A big, big win for the undermanned Nuggets, and kind of a tough loss for the Thunder. The Nuggets were down three starters for this one, just like they were for Saturday’s demolition at the hands of the Heat. Had a pair of heroic performances not carried them, this game could’ve been pretty similar. Oklahoma City made 15 of their 36 three-point attempts, got three 20+ point outings, and forced 34 mid-range shots for the Nuggets. It didn’t matter, because this was Michael Porter, Jr.’s night:
Porter, Jr. had 37 points in what was easily his best game yet in the NBA, combining it with 12 rebounds for a statline any player would be proud to have. From the start, MPJ was clearly on, and it helped the Nuggets survive what would’ve been another tough loss to take. As it stands, Denver is barely holding onto a (1 or 2) game lead over the Rockets for the 3 seed, and a loss here would’ve done some severe damage to their hopes. The Nuggets want two things: to avoid having to play the Lakers in the second round and to avoid drawing the Mavericks in the first. They’ll have to play the Clippers eventually, but they need that 3 seed pretty badly. Until all their starters are back, they’ll have to take wins like this one where it’s more about survival than domination. They’re probably fine with that.
MPJ’s incredible outing helped cover up what was a pretty horrific effort by the Denver bench. They managed just 14 points in 85 minutes of action, shooting 5-for-20 from the field. Jerami Grant at least acquitted himself somewhat well defensively, but the rest – unfortunately, this includes Bol Bol – looked varying shades of bad. Denver needs their starters back simply to limit some of these players’ minutes. There isn’t much more to take from this game for them because of that incompletion, I suppose, though Jokic helped co-carry this one to the finish line with 30/12/10.
For the Thunder, it’s a bummer of a loss, mostly because they did a lot of things pretty well. They contested a lot of Denver’s attempts very well and frequently forced MPJ to finish through contact. The issue: he did. That won’t happen every single night, and it’s worth noting how many long twos and contested threes OKC forced in this game. They kept Denver’s shot quality relatively low, but Denver still won because of a pair of great individual performances. It’s tough to lose to a Denver team missing three starters, but they did a lot of good work.
A key thing they can take home: this was a particularly useful Danilo Gallinari game. As happens on most nights, the Thunder got very good performances from both Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but Gallinari’s 20-point, four-three outing could be the X-factor for this team.
If Gallinari can be a consistent piece in the playoffs, it elevates Oklahoma City’s ceiling that much further. He’s never been a very good defender, but in games like this, he wasn’t targeted all that often and held his own for the most part. If he’s able to replicate this regularly, I really do think the Thunder can win a series, which would be a massive statement in a year where many predicted they’d miss the playoffs altogether.
However, their fate in the playoffs also rests on players like Luguentz Dort having better games than this one. Dort was a horror show offensively, going 3-for-13 and missing several shots at the rim:
Dort isn’t a good offensive player, but the fault honestly lies with him taking 13 shots in the first place. That’s as many as Gallinari took, and his specialty remains being a very good defender. (He held up well on that end in this game, of course.) OKC has to find a way to either keep Dort’s usage rate low – it hovered around 13% for most of the season – or to get him easier looks off of off-ball cuts and screens within the flow of the offense. We’ll see what Billy Donovan comes up with.
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