The top half of the Western Conference playoff race is all but set in stone. Golden State leads the way, followed by Denver, OKC, and Portland. Denver has a legitimate chance to contest the Warriors for first while Portland has the opportunity to overtake OKC for third.
Heading into Tuesday night’s ESPN matchup between Oklahoma City and Denver, the Thunder had an outside chance to get hot through the final 20-something games and move into Denver’s spot. First order of business: beat Denver, which is something the Thunder haven’t done in the previous four attempts.
The gameplan was to force turnovers and capitalize on them with points. The Nuggets have a slew of players that can score by the boatload but the difference tonight was Denver’s extremely skilled center, Nikola Jokic.
Fans rave about Jokic because of his ability to score, defend, distribute, and run the offense. He opened his full repertoire of talents against the Thunder en route to a 121-112 victory but did OKC find a working formula to slow him down? Possibly.
Steven Adams is known for being a defensive-minded big man and it’s usually beneficial for the Thunder but on rare occasions, there are big men that outmatch him. Jokic may not be the most athletic, but he’s one of the most skilled big men in the league and more detrimental to Adams, he’s mobile.
That typically doesn’t go well for Adams. He’s exclusive to the paint and in matchups like these, that hurts the Thunder.
As his primary defender, Adams allowed an efficient 37 points through three quarters from Jokic. Adams has a glaring weakness and we’ve seen it each and every matchup during this now five-game winning streak the Nuggets have on the Thunder.
After Adams got into foul trouble with four, Nerlens Noel checked in, which on the surface, meant trouble for OKC. Some seemed to forget how and why Noel thrives in these types of matchups. Though a superstar, Jokic’s skill set matches with the way Noel plays defensively; physical, athletic and quick. That was on display through the closing stages of the third quarter, into the fourth.
After checking into the game at the 2:13 mark of the third quarter, his first action defensively was taking a defensive charge on Jokic. That set the tone. During the final stretch of the third, to the 5:43 mark of the fourth quarter, the Thunder went on a 25-6 run, overtaking Denver for the lead at 100-97. During that stretch, Noel made Jokic a complete non-factor on offense.
Once Denver adjusted and started trading baskets with OKC, it was on the backs of Jamal Murray and Paul Milsap, who scored 9 points during a two-minute stretch but at the 3:21 mark, Noel was called for his sixth personal foul which disqualified him for the game. That turned out to be more significant of a loss than losing Adams in the third quarter.
There’s no coincidence that as soon as Adams checked back in as Jokic’s primary defender, Jokic scored nine points during Denver’s 24-12 run to close the game out.
If Noel wouldn’t have fouled out of this game, he presumably would have kept Jokic relatively dormant on the offensive end. Even more eye-opening, if Noel would have been on him for the majority of the game, without racking up fouls, Jokic wouldn’t have had a stat-line as impressive as 36 points, 10 assists, and nine rebounds.
The Thunder have lost the season series but have an opportunity to test this new theory out in their last matchup of the regular season against the Nuggets late in March. That’ll serve as the final test as they very possibly will have to face Denver in a Western Conference Semifinal series.
Photo: Garrett Ellwood | Getty Images.