Denver Nuggets 99, Oklahoma City Thunder 95: Three Takeaways

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A win is a win.

Despite blowing an 18-point lead Sunday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Denver Nuggets had just enough defense to survive and pull out a 99-95 win. Both Nikola Jokić and Austin Rivers finished with 22 points to lead the way for the Mile High Squad.

Will Barton’s hot start (eight points in the first two minutes) fueled an early 14-4 lead for Denver. The Nuggets (20-18) hit their first three attempts from beyond the arc and were active on the offensive glass during the opening stretch of Sunday’s contest. The Mile High squad was up by as many as 18 during the middle portion of the opening frame, and the Nuggets eventually found themselves up 36-23 after the first 12 minutes. Denver shot 6-of-10 from deep and racked up nine offensive rebounds in the first quarter, which directly led to eight second-chance points.

As Denver’s offense struggled to open the second frame, Oklahoma City (13-26) got within eight points at 40-32. Austin Rivers and Jeff Green led Denver’s second unit early in the quarter, and the two players combined for 24 points in the first half. However, as Denver’s starters checked back in, the Nuggets only found themselves up 48-41. The starters slightly extended the lead down the stretch of the half and secured a 61-49 advantage at the break.

As Denver struggled to take care of the ball, Oklahoma City got within five points at 65-60 near the midway point of the third quarter. The Nuggets failed to generate quality looks on a consistent basis throughout the frame, and several turnovers certainly didn’t make anything easier as they battled to maintain a lead. Oklahoma City continued to chip away at the lead and eventually tied the game up at 72 late in the quarter. It was a struggle for both teams down the stretch of the third quarter, but Denver ultimately took an 80-78 lead into the final quarter.

Two quick buckets from Jeff Green gave Denver a little more breathing room to open the fourth frame. However, Oklahoma City responded in the ensuing minutes, which resulted in a tied game at 87 with just under seven minutes remaining. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, the Thunder opened up a five-point lead with 4:26 remaining as a result of a 6-1 run. Rivers helped Denver recover with five points as the Nuggets regained a slim 95-93 lead with just over one minute remaining. Defense and a few clutch free throws helped the Mile High squad escape with the win.

Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s win.

Green and Rivers fueled second unit success

During Friday’s win over the Sacramento Kings, Jeff Green headlined Denver’s second unit. Well, it sure seemed like Green saved more for his encore, as he followed up his 18-point performance against the Kings with 16 Sunday night in Oklahoma City. However, the veteran forward received plenty of help from Austin Rivers as the two thrived off the bench.

Rivers caught fire from deep to the tune of six made 3-pointers and a season-high 22 points in his 32 minutes of action. Facundo Campazzo effectively played the role of distributor against the Thunder, racking up eight assists off the bench.

Denver’s rotations have shifted several times throughout the season, but performances like Sunday’s from Green and Rivers will be essential throughout the remainder of the season for a shorthanded Nuggets squad.

Second half struggles on offense

It was a tale of two halves for the Nuggets’ offense Sunday night. After scoring 36 points in the first 12 minutes and 61 in the first half, Denver could only muster 19 points in the third frame and 38 overall in the second half.

The Nuggets shot 10-of-19 from three in the first half, but only 3-of-17 over the final 24 minutes Sunday night in Oklahoma City. Six third-quarter turnovers allowed Oklahoma City to get back into the game as shots stopped falling for the Mile High squad. Denver finished Sunday’s game with 15 turnovers that led to 14 points for Oklahoma City.

Moving forward, the Nuggets will need to be sharper offensively throughout all 48 minutes.

Quiet dominance from the reigning MVP

It says something about how impressive Nikola Jokić has been all season that his performance in Sunday’s win flew a bit under-the-radar. Although it wasn’t always pretty, the Serbian big man finished with 22 points, 18 rebounds, and six assists in his 33 minutes of action, which included two clutch free throws in the final minute to help secure the win.

As Oklahoma City sent double teams and zone looks at Jokić and the Nuggets consistently throughout the night, the reigning MVP had to work harder on the glass to get in the scoring column. Jokić finished with eight offensive rebounds Sunday night.

Denver is back in action Tuesday night against the LA Clippers (8:30 p.m. MT).