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There are many individuals in the world of sports who are protective of the term “must win.” That phrase isn’t something to be thrown around at any old time, they say. It is only to be used when a team’s backs are, in fact, against the proverbial wall.
Today, the Nuggets are there. Their playoff hopes hinge on wins. They must win their Sunday afternoon matinee against Oklahoma City, or be eliminated from the chase. Portland’s win over Utah on Saturday night has pushed the Nuggets to the brink. It is the Nuggets’ final regular season home game.
Keeping themselves alive for at least one more day means doing something the Nuggets haven’t yet done this season: Beat the Thunder. The Nuggets have dropped both contests against Oklahoma City, a Northwest Division rival, so far. Starting today, two of the Nuggets’ last three games are against the Thunder.
Outside of Golden State and Cleveland, there isn’t a bigger attraction right now than the traveling Russell Westbrook Show. The 6-3 star Thunder guard has been the NBA’s poster boy of a statistical regular season gone wild league-wide. Westbrook leads the charge with his assault on the triple-double record-book.
He’s got 41 triple-doubles this season. His next one will put him atop a chart no one thought could ever be touched – passing Oscar Roberston for the most triple-doubles in a season. Robertson has owned the record (41) since the 1961-62 season in which he set it.
Westbrook has already clinched averaging a triple-double for the season, also matching Robertson. He comes into Sunday’s game averaging an NBA-leading 31.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. He’s got more triple-doubles himself than 10 NBA teams have in their entire history. The Thunder is 32-9 this season when he gets one.
The Nuggets have their own triple-double threat in center Nikola Jokic. He’s got six of them this season, and probably should have seven. Jokic appeared to have an uncredited assist in the Nuggets’ game at Houston last week, which would have given him a triple-double that night.
Regardless, Jokic’s season has been impressive, and the Nuggets are going to need a big day from him in order to get the win. There is a twist to this contest: Oklahoma City has not seen this edition of the Nuggets. The last time the two teams met was on Jan. 7 in Oklahoma City, and Jokic did not play in that game. In the first meeting, way back on Nov. 25 at the Pepsi Center, Jokic was still coming off the bench.
A lot has changed since then.
Jokic became a bonafide up-and-coming star for the Nuggets, leading the team in points (19.2) and rebounds (11.0) since becoming a full-time starter on Dec. 15. The Nuggets offense has been one of the league’s most potent since after their game against the Thunder in January. That game preceded the trip to London that completely remade the Nuggets’ season.
The Thunder, which holds the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference, haven’t seen any of this up close. But Oklahoma City will today. And if the Nuggets play at the level in which they’ve been accustomed, they may indeed live to fight for the playoffs for another day.