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Nuggets Lead Late but Can't Hold Off Westbrook, Thunder
OKLAHOMA CITY – There is one undeniable truth each and every time the Nuggets square off against the Oklahoma City Thunder: At some point, they are going to have to survive a Russell Westbrook storm.
They almost did on Monday night. Almost.
Westbrook led a furious comeback that saw Oklahoma City erase a 10-point Nuggets’ lead in the fourth quarter and steal a 95-94 victory at Chesapeake Energy Arena. It was a 22-11 Thunder run in the final 9:13 that sealed the deal. Westbrook had all 16 of his fourth quarter points in that run, part of a 38-point night overall.
And through it all, it was the Nuggets trying to hold as the embers died out on the game. But they missed a shot with the game tied at 94 with 31.7 seconds to play, and another as the clock expired, down by one.
“We played good enough to win the game,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Obviously, Westbrook took over in the fourth quarter. After the first quarter, we did a much better job of taking care of the basketball. But down in the end of the game tonight, I didn’t think we had great poise, and I didn’t think we had great execution. We had some good looks – we had a couple of players that couldn’t buy a basket tonight – and that’s how the NBA works at times.”
The NBA, at its core, is a league that forces you to get better by learning lessons the hard way. There are no shortcuts, and the Nuggets will take away lessons on how to execute down the stretch on the road in front of a deafening crowd and an opponent with momentum. They’ll sort through how to communicate on defense, and from the sideline to the court, through all of the chaos. These types of wins are earned on the backs of difficult losses. The Nuggets have several reference points now for the future.
To even put themselves in position to win, the Nuggets had to rally from being down as many as 15 points. In the third quarter, they reeled Oklahoma City in and took their first lead. By the time the quarter had ended, newcomer Torrey Craig had scored 10 points in the period and the Nuggets outscored Oklahoma City 32-18 to take a six-point lead into the fourth quarter.
But they could not hold on.
Craig was a standout performer in the loss, scoring 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the field. He made all three of his 3-pointers and drew the unenviable assignment of guarding Westbrook much of the game. Gary Harris shook off a scary fall in the third quarter in which his head slammed on the court to make big buckets in the second half en route to a team-high 17 points. Trey Lyles scored 10 points in the fourth quarter and finished with 15.
Nikola Jokić came off the bench for a second straight game as he works his way back from a badly sprained ankle. He had 13 points, nine rebounds and two steals in 25 minutes.
“I’m proud of the fact that we came out in the third quarter and played phenomenal,” Malone said. “We knew they would turn it up in that fourth quarter and Westbrook took over the game. We came up a little bit short against a tough division opponent.”
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter