The task is simple and straightforward on paper. Stop Oklahoma City’s Big Three and give yourself a chance to win.
But then you’re on the court. And screaming down the hardwood in an athletic blur comes Russell Westbrook. Carmelo Anthony works his trademark midrange jump shot. Paul George comes off of screens and hoists 3-point shots.
This is anything but simple.
But the Nuggets did not flinch.
They stood toe-to-toe with Oklahoma City and grinded their way to a 102-94 win on Thursday night at the Pepsi Center. Defended their way to victory, actually. It started with a stellar performance in holding Westbrook to mere mortal totals of 13 points on 6-of-22 shooting. It continued in holding Paul George to just 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
“We had a hard time beating that team last year, and we all know that,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “So, to pull a close game out against a talented team – they are struggling right now, but a talented team – it’s just one of those wins. I don’t know if we win that game last year.”
They forced OKC into 18 turnovers and converted those into 17 points. Carmelo Anthony had a typical high-scoring effort, 28 points, but he was the only Thunder player that had his offense consistently going. Because as a team, the Nuggets held the Thunder to just 42.2 percent from the field.
Paul Millsap was a huge part of the defensive effort. He tied his career-high with six blocked shots — all in the first half. He turned up the offense in the second half and finished with 17 points, but the scoring star of the night was Emmanuel Mudiay. The third-year guard scored 21 points and made his first eight shots from the field before settling in finish 8-of-10 from the field while adding seven rebounds and five assists.
“Emmanuel was the MVP tonight,” Malone said. “He was phenomenal.”
As has been his custom this season, Mudiay got things rolling offensively soon after he hit the court in the first half, scoring five points in the first quarter and six more in the second. And the Nuggets needed it. The starting five were slow to get going, and the Nuggets were down 11 early on. But the reserves led by Mudiay, Mason Plumlee and Will Barton, scored 31 of the Nuggets’ 51 first half points and the Nuggets were down just two at the half.
And that was enough of a lift to get the starters going. The Nuggets rebounded better in the second half, significantly cutting into Oklahoma City’s offensive rebounding and second chance points. With that taken care of, the Nuggets got a real foothold in the game.
“They were killing us on the boards in the first half, and we picked that up,” guard Gary Harris said. “And we didn’t turn the ball over as much in the second half as well.”
Tied going into the fourth, the Nuggets outscored Oklahoma City 27-19 in the fourth to put the game away.
“I sense a confidence growing in this team,” Malone said. “I don’t know if you guys can sense it. I sense in that locker room, on the bench, watching guys on the court, there is a confidence growing within this group that they are starting to believe – not that we can be a good team, but we can be a really good team.”
Christopher Dempsey: firstname.lastname@example.org and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.