The Oklahoma City Thunder have surprised this season despite not having rookie Chet Holmgren available, working their way into the playoff hunt with some impressive victories.
One team they haven’t solved is Western Conference-leading Denver Nuggets, who have won the first three meetings between the teams and will go for the season sweep when they host the Thunder on Sunday night.
Holmgren, the 7-footer who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 draft, went down with a foot injury over the summer and had season-ending surgery. The Thunder have found their way behind Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who leads the team in scoring at 30.6 points a game. He had 37 in a 118-113 loss at Sacramento on Friday that snapped a four-game winning streak.
“The team always runs through the finish line,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. “Great competitive level. We played exceptionally hard. … Certainly a relevant game we can learn from.”
Gilgeous-Alexander is averaging nearly twice as many points as the Thunder’s second-leading scorer, Josh Giddy, who is at 16.0 per game. Gilgeous-Alexander has been solid against Denver this year, averaging 32.0 points and 7.0 assists in the three games.
Oklahoma City nearly took the last meeting between the teams on Nov. 23, but the Nuggets rallied from 15 down in the fourth quarter and won 131-126 in overtime. Nikola Jokic had 39 points in that game without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. available.
Friday was the Nuggets’ third game without head coach Michael Malone, who was placed in health and safety protocol on Tuesday.
Murray and Porter are back healthy while Jokic sat out Friday’s 134-111 win over Indiana with left hamstring tightness as the Nuggets extended their winning streak to nine games.
“It’s good to get one without him,” Nuggets rookie Christian Braun said about winning without Jokic. “He really doesn’t miss too many games, so just seeing that we can play without him and playing with him on the bench is good.”
Even if Jokic does sit out Sunday, the Thunder will have a tough time slowing down the streaking Nuggets, who also have won 16 in a row at home. Murray was the star Friday night when he notched his first career triple-double — 17 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds — while Denver got contributions throughout the lineup.
Aaron Gordon had a game-high 28 points and continued his strong season.
“We’ve talked a lot about Aaron Gordon being a possible All-Star. We’re the No. 1 team in the West, so if Jamal Murray isn’t in the conversation, then you don’t value winning,” said assistant coach David Adelman, who has served as the acting head coach for three games. “All three of those guys have been so consistent throughout the whole year — Nikola, Aaron, Jamal. They deserve the accolades that they’re getting.”
The Nuggets hope Malone and Jokic can return, if not Sunday then on the upcoming three-game road trip through New Orleans, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
–Field Level Media