Back in mid-December, the Thunder arrived in Denver as the hottest team in the NBA, winners of 14 of 15, and proceeded to blast the Nuggets in impressive fashion.
Less than a month later, on Thursday night, Oklahoma City was back in the Mile High City, stuck in a sudden rut that was punctuated by an end-to-end whooping from the Nuggets.
Two games, two wildly different double-digit results.
The biggest difference: Russell Westbrook played in the win, didn't in the loss.
The biggest area affected by that All-Star absence: Bench play.
In the initial victory, OKC's bench crushed Denver's second-unit, compiling an impressive cumulative plus/minus of plus-41 to the Nuggets' minus-69.
“This was our first night in a while that our second-unit kind of got outplayed by the other team's second-unit,” Denver coach Brian Shaw said at the time.
But on Thursday, the tables were turned. Denver's steady second-unit took it to OKC's stumbling squad.
At the end of the third quarter, by the time the game had already been decided, the Thunder bench had been outscored 32-5. Combined, OKC's reserves were 2-of-18 shooting.
“The reason why we are such a good team is because of the bench,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “They have been great all year, but they just had a few tough games.”
Brooks is right in one regard. The bench had been great all year.
With Westbrook in the lineup for the first two months, the Thunder's second-unit was establishing itself as one of the best in the league, consistently outscoring and outplaying its counterparts.
But with Westbrook down, Reggie Jackson has joined the starting lineup. And that promotion has sapped some life out of the emerging bench, leaving a clear ballhandling and playmaking void.
Jeremy Lamb was handed part of that added responsibility. And while he's flashed some additional tools — shown by his career-high six assists against Boston — it has clearly affected his efficient shooting stroke, which helped the Thunder so much during that hot streak.
In his past five games, Lamb is shooting 30 percent. On this recent two-game road trip, he went a woeful 5-of-26 from the field and 1-of-12 from 3-point range.
And in addition, the domino effect has given Derek Fisher a bump in playing time and responsibility. Beyond Jackson, he's the only other healthy point guard on the roster. But at his age, Fisher is really more of a spot-up shooting guard, with limited ability to run an offense.
“We usually play with a little more speed, a little more pace,” Nick Collison said of the second-unit. “We like to get down the floor, run our stuff and then get them chasing the ball … We're doing it slower (lately).”
Slower and less effective because of the sudden personnel change. You have guys trying to make plays they're not capable of and attempting to fit into roles they're not used to. Everything is out of kilter.
Good news for the Thunder: Come playoff time, when it truly matters, they should be back into their more comfortable slots.
But in the interim, with Westbrook out, it's becoming a clear issue. And it's hurting them in key pockets of the game.