OKLAHOMA CITY — Michael Malone barked from the sideline as his Nuggets players frantically darted around on defense, illustrating perhaps the most glaring example of poor late-game execution Monday night against the Thunder.
Denver was supposed to foul early in the Oklahoma City possession that began with 28.1 seconds left on the clock, allowing the Nuggets to get into a “2-for-1” spot with the game clock and for Malone to put his best defenders on the floor. But point guard Jamal Murray “chose not to foul,” the coach said, sending teammate Trey Lyles sprinting to the right wing to commit an infraction with less than 15 seconds remaining.
Then Thunder star Russell Westbrook, who had already scored 15 points in the final frame, began a textbook drive to the basket and the official blew the whistle on recent G League call-up Torrey Craig. The reigning MVP then sank 1-of-2 free throws to lift Oklahoma City to a 95-94 comeback victory in front of a deafening crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“Obviously Westbrook took over in that fourth quarter,” Malone said. “… There was a lot of bad execution on both ends of the floor down the stretch. We’ve been pretty good in those situations so far this season. Tonight was a step backwards, unfortunately.”
An off-target Gary Harris desperation 3-pointer as time expired sealed the loss that dropped the Nuggets to 16-14 overall, 5-12 on the road and 1-1 against their Northwest Division rival. But Denver surrendered a 10-point lead over the final 9:28, with Westbrook fueling Oklahoma City’s rally.
His driving layup sparked a 19-9 run to even the score at 92 with 3:54 to play, a stretch also naturally capped by a Westbrook jumper. Following a Harris layup to break the tie, Westbrook finished a layup to knot the game 94-94 with 1:48 left. His 38 points, nine rebounds and six assists offset off nights by the other members of the Thunder’s “Big 3,” with Paul George finishing with eight points on 3-of-13 shooting and former Nuggets star Carmelo Anthony totaling four points on 2-of-6 from the floor.
“We didn’t need to wait for the last shot to win the game,” said Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, who totaled 13 points and nine rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench in his second contest back from a seven-game absence with a sprained ankle. “I think could have won with like three minutes to go, because we had the lead. We just needed to push a little bit …
“It’s no one’s fault, but I just think we had an opportunity to finish the game earlier.”
But the Thunder needed its late comeback because of a Nuggets’ third quarter Malone deemed “phenomenal” thanks to a defense that held Oklahoma City to 7-of-20 from the floor and an offense that committed just one turnover. Denver out-scored the Thunder 32-18 in the period, using a 21-8 run to snag a 65-60 advantage when one of Craig’s three 3-pointers rattled home and an 11-2 spurt to end the quarter after back-to-back 3-pointers by Alex Abrines had given the Thunder a 68-65 lead.
Malone, though, will most remember how this one finished. The coach publicly conveyed that the Nuggets also faltered on their second-to-last offensive possession, after Westbrook misfired on a pull-up 17-footer and on a 3-pointer at the top of the key and Denver called timeout with 48.4 seconds left. A key breakdown after the huddle meant the Nuggets “never got into the action,” resulting in a miss on a forced 3-pointer by Murray with the shot clock winding down.
Pick that or the defensive possession that followed, which ultimately ended with Westbrook standing at the free-throw line. They both illustrate how the Nuggets failed to execute down the stretch in another road loss.
“We played good enough to win the game,” Malone said. “… At the end of the game tonight, I didn’t think we had great poise.”