Gary Harris slid over from the right corner to the wing and gave Nikola Jokic a “funny” look, triggering a sidearm out-of-bounds pass from big man to shooting guard with less than two seconds remaining. Harris caught the ball and immediately set his feet toward the basket and fired away as the buzzer sounded. Then Harris took off, swiftly sprinting to the opposite side of the court and through the Nuggets’ tunnel with three fingers raised in the air.
And thus Harris flipped a week for the Nuggets that had previously been defined by missed potential game-winners against two of the NBA’s best teams. His 3-pointer as time expired beat Oklahoma City 127-124 Thursday night at the Pepsi Center, completing one of the league’s wildest finishes this season and one of the Nuggets’ biggest wins so far.
“It felt good,” Harris said of the shot. “I knew it was going in.”
A dramatic conclusion finally bounced Denver’s way, after Will Barton missed deep last-possession shots that would have clinched victories against Boston on Monday and San Antonio on Tuesday. Harris’ game-winner capped the third thriller between these two division rivals so far this season, with Denver now holding a 2-1 advantage before their final meeting in Oklahoma City on March 30. And the win increased the Nuggets’ (27-25) lead on the Clippers for the eighth spot in the Western Conference to one game.
“We needed that, and I felt that we deserved that game,” coach Michael Malone said. “ … How proud I am of this team, I can’t even explain it.”
Harris’ shot put the final stamp on a thrilling fourth quarter, which nearly ended with the score knotted at 124 after Paul George drilled a step-back 3 with 1.4 seconds left. The Thunder (30-22) outscored the Nuggets 35-23 in the period to claw back from 15 points down, a final period in which Malone said his team “mentally lost it for a little bit” as Oklahoma City stars George (43 points, 5-of-8 from beyond the arc) and Russell Westbrook (20 points, 21 assists, nine rebounds) masterfully spearheaded the surge.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, countered with their young core that carved up the Thunder’s typically stout defense for 72 points in the first half, sank timely buckets when their lead dwindled from 20 points to single digits down the stretch and ultimately executed the last-second play that lifted Denver to victory. Jamal Murray sent Twitter ablaze in the second quarter with a filthy crossover and step-back 3 that caused Thunder big man Steven Adams to slip and fall, then scored 10 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter to match several of the Thunder’s clutch baskets. Jokic recorded his third triple-double of the season — and second within the past week — with 29 points, a career-high 14 assists and 13 rebounds. Harris’ dagger was his fifth 3-pointer to finish off his night with 25 points.
“We don’t win this game without our young players who are so important to today,” Malone said, “and, more importantly, so important to our tomorrow … we are building the future of this team behind Gary, Jamal (and) Nikola.”
Harris’ first-career buzzer-beater was the latest signature moment in a terrific fourth season in which he has morphed into Denver’s leading scorer (17.4 points per game), maintained his defensive prowess on the perimeter (1.9 steals per game) and blossomed as a more vocal leader.
Yet the last time Harris hit a game-winner was in high school, prompting a similar dash-off-the-court celebration. Thursday night, he was mobbed by teammates and staffers in the Nuggets’ locker room. Then after the chaos died down, Malone approached Harris with his cellphone. The coach had pulled up a photo of Harris’ shot, highlighting the microscopic distance between the ball and Westbrook’s outstretched hand.
“I don’t know how you got that off,” Malone said.
“I knew (Westbrook) was running at me,” Harris said. “But I was just focused on hitting the shot.”