By the fourth quarter, stark reality of the situation fully hit Nuggets coach Michael Malone. His team was down, but he was not going to put the starters back in. First, he was getting good effort from the quintet of Jamal Murray, Mason Plumlee, Juancho Hernangomez, Will Barton and Jameer Nelson. Second, he wanted to stay away from major injuries.
“As I sat on the bench, I reminded myself, priority number one: get out of here healthy,” said Malone after the Nuggets’ 96-86 loss to Oklahoma City at the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night. “I just had visions of putting Paul (Millsap), Nikola (Jokić), Gary (Harris) back in the game and whoever else back in the game and something happening in a meaningless fourth quarter in the preseason.”
So he didn’t.
Outside of a brief fourth quarter run that got the Nuggets back within one at 76-75 after trailing by as many as 21, the Thunder pulled away for the win. Oklahoma City went on an 18-4 run after that to put the game out of reach.
“They are a good team, and it was an opportunity for us to measure ourselves against a very talented team,” Malone said. “But we can’t turn the ball over as much as we did in the first half and spot them a lead and have to play spirited basketball to get back in the game.”
The Nuggets ended the preseason 3-2 and with a few questions still to answer in the eight days before their regular season opener at Utah. Most of those are rotation questions. Malone has a starting point guard in mind, but is not likely to reveal him until the season starts. Murray started on Tuesday, and the final preseason game is usually viewed as a dress rehearsal, although Malone shied away from calling this game that.
Mostly though, he wants to give his team some rest. The Nuggets were 34 percent from the field, and Malone blamed a great many jump shots that fell short on weary legs. So he’ll give the team Wednesday off before getting back to work in preparation for the Jazz.
He was pleased with Will Barton’s play off the bench. Not only did Barton score 26 points with five rebounds, but he played solid defense.
“I thought Will Barton played some great one-on-one defense,” Malone said. “He had some great possessions guarding Paul George, who is not an easy player to guard.”
Jokić finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds and Harris had 10. Russell Westbrook led the Thunder with 20 points. He scored 14 of them in the first quarter.
Christopher Dempsey: firstname.lastname@example.org and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.