After the All-Star break, there tends to be what I call a Tropical Hangover, which is pretty self-explanatory. It’s a period where players aren’t themselves after being off for a week doing who knows what. As for the Thunder, or at least Steven Adams, who trained his dog all break, we know that it was a relatively chill week. Despite a period where both the Thunder and Denver Nuggets missed 11 consecutive shots in the first quarter, the Thunder were keyed in while the Nuggets continued their slow start on Friday night.
OKC led 27-17 after the first quarter, which gave them the upper-hand throughout most of the game despite many rallies by the Nuggets, keeping the score within arms reach throughout. The Thunder still defeated Denver 113-101.
What makes this monumental win a little peculiar: Dennis Schröder only scored 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting. No one with basic Thunder basketball knowledge would have predicted a double-digit Thunder victory over the (38-17) Nuggets after seeing Schröder’s statistics.
Two players made the biggest difference, but balanced scoring and a lethal defensive attack was the most obvious reason why OKC pulled off this victory in front of a national audience. Those two players that headlined the group were Chris Paul and Steven Adams who scored 48 combined points. Paul had a team-high 29, while Adams finished with 19 and 17 rebounds on Denver’s all-star big man, Nikola Jokic.
As mentioned, it was a balanced attack for OKC, and it was the perfect blend of offense and defense. This was a perfect recipe to stop Denver, who has been a difficult team to stop all season long. Danilo Gallinari scored 15 points, despite a poor shooting night (4-of-14 FG). Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, however, nearly notched his second triple-double of the season with 11 points, 9 assists, and 9 rebounds. The dark horse in this game that weirdly enough led the charge in hustle points and OKC’s overall defensive identity was Luguentz Dort. Dort played a balanced offensive/defensive game, finishing with 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting and 3 steals.
OKC forced Denver into an uncharacteristic 19 turnovers on 12 steals. Denver won the rebound battle 31-30, but the Thunder won the offensive battle for rebounds 14-8, which translated into 11 second-chance points. It’s also important to point out that Denver shot 22.2 percent from three, which is nearly 14 percent lower than their season average of 36 percent. The Nuggets didn’t just miss wide-open shots. Most of their threes were contested, so that’s another testament to OKC’s stellar defensive strategy coming into this game.
The biggest win of the season is exactly what Oklahoma City needed coming out of the All-Star break. Everyone in the NBA notices the improvement from last year’s team to this year’s, and it’s not because the Thunder are putting better basketball players on the court. It’s because, for the first time in a decade, Oklahoma City knows the definition of team basketball.