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Thunder vs Nuggets, final score: OKC rims out shot to win over Denver, fall 109-98

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So many missed opportunities.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

box score | Denver Stiffs

The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Denver Nuggets, 109-98. For the second game in a row, the Thunder could not keep up with a more aggressive front court from their opponents and, combined with mental mistakes and miscues, dropped their second game of the season to Denver. The Nuggets solidify their position at the top of the West, and the Thunder filed another game where inattention to detail undermined their chances.

The Thunder were led by Steven Adams, who finished with 26 points on 12-20 shooting, including 14 rebounds (11 offensive), 2 assists, a steal and 2 blocks. It was one of his best offensive showings in his career, as he repeatedly punished the Denver front line whenever they guarded him straight up. His hook shot has never looked so pure. Adams was joined by Paul George, who finished with 32 on 12-24 shooting, including 3-6 from three. Unfortunately for the rest of the Thunder, they came up far too short against a very strong Denver team.

After OKC’s first loss to Denver, I was not too upset because at the time Denver was head and shoulders above everyone else, and OKC was trying to regain its footing. But this time, this one is annoying and leaves a bitter taste. Over the past two seasons, OKC has now lost five in a row to the Nuggets, and in many of those games the Thunder — like tonight — have had to play catchup throughout. And yet when the Thunder’s favorite quarter arrived after the break, and they began to put the clamps on Denver’s offense, again and again OKC failed to convert the plays they needed.

And this failure doesn’t omit anyone. Even George and Adams — along with literally every other player — made mistakes in the moments when the game could have turned in their favor. These mistakes manifested as missed free throws (17-29), failure to box out on the defensive glass (Denver out-rebounded them 36-24), and most jarringly, OKC repeatedly missed shots right at the rim, and particularly ones when the game was within striking distance.

Perhaps the most egregious and defining was the moment in the 3rd where, after pulling to within three, the Nuggets gifted Terrance Ferguson with a clear path foul (2 FTs + possession) and a potential chance to take the lead. Yet Ferguson completely bricked both free throws, and then George rushed and missed a long, contested two. Although OKC fought to stay close, they kept wasting opportunities their defense was affording them, and a few minutes later were again trailing by double digits.

In fact, OKC’s game plan to play at the rim instead of the perimeter largely paid off. Denver was superior shooting the ball, but the Thunder — though slower out of the gates — limited their threes to only 19 attempts on the night, with much of the rest flowing through Adams or players trying to finish at the rim. And yet they failed at it, big time:

via NBA.com/stats

The worst offenders were Westbrook and Schroder, but Adams and George also missed shots at the rim in the 4th that could have altered the game’s outcome. Essentially the two easiest shots of the game — shots at the rim and free throws — are the two areas where OKC has struggled the most this week.

Even more frustrating, for the second game in a row, OKC was facing a significantly shorthanded team, with the Nuggets missing Paul Millsap and Will Barton, yet the Thunder were the ones who looked shorthanded. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray did what they do, but it was role players Juan Hernangomez (16 points on 5-9 shooting), Torrey Craig (15 points, 3-4 from three) and Monte Morris off the bench (14 points, 6-11 shooting) that really spelled the difference.

By contrast, the Thunder again saw Westbrook struggle shooting the ball (5-15) and got nothing at all from Terrance Ferguson (0-1 in 24 minutes), Alex Abrines (0-1 in 19 minutes), Nerlens Noel (0-1 in 11 minutes), and Schroder did the bench no favors, too often calling his own number yet shooting only 3-13 from the floor.

The defense largely did its job against the NBA’s most dynamic offense. After their quick start to the game, the Nuggets finished the remaining three quarters shooting only 4-24 from three and committed 15 turnovers. That’s very good perimeter defense. Yet OKC undermined any hope they might have had by shooting only 36% from the floor and missed 9 free throws in that stretch.

Not good enough. Not against the Nuggets, and daresay, not against anyone (see: Bulls loss). Fast turnaround — they have the Clips in less than 24 hours.

Quick shots

  • I understand Ferguson is largely on the court for his improved two-way ability, but if OKC can’t generate more than one look for him in 24 minutes (a contested corner-three), then his presence offensively is useless and the team simply isn’t trying hard enough to utilize its full arsenal, particularly by using the thing that Ferg DOES offer — namely, supreme athleticism. Even Andre Roberson with his offensive limitations knows how to run backdoor lobs, yet we haven’t seen that from Ferg in a while.
  • Same goes for Alex Abrines. Alex can sorta-kinda hold his own to not get burned too badly defensively, but his primary value is in shooting threes. The Thunder produced exactly one of those for him, and it wasn’t even a good look. Again, if the offense can’t even do that, then there is precious little reason for him to be out there.
  • Ok, fine. I’ll say it, if it isn’t clear. Where is Deonte Burton? He was inactive on Wednesday, but it’s not like Abrines/Ferg had a massive impact there, either (11 points combined). If you’re getting exactly two shot attempts from those two guys above while the rest of the team is failing to finish at the rim, might it not be useful to have a bigger guard who IS good finishing at the rim (and can hit the corner-three) available?
  • Many have said it, yet I still can’t believe it. Patrick Patterson is currently the worst big man finisher at the rim I’ve seen in the game in a long time.
  • Schroder — has to be better.

Next game: tomorrow night @ LA Clippers at 8PM CST