DENVER – Friday was a night of struggles for the Thunder.
OKC struggled defensively, struggled offensively, even struggled shooting free throws.
Despite all this pain and suffering, and despite facing one of the NBA’s hottest teams the past month or so, it still took a 21-footer with 0.2 seconds remaining for the Denver Nuggets to topple the Thunder 105-103 at Pepsi Center.
Point guard Ty Lawson was 4 for 13 from the field when he hit the game-winner over the outstretched arm of defender Thabo Sefolosha, and in the process became the only Denver starter to score in double-digits while concluding an odd game of severe mismatches between starters and bench players.
The OKC bench was outscored 71-11, which in turn meant Nuggets starters were outscored 92-34.
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for OKC (42-16) while the Nuggets (38-22) won for the 14th time in their last 18 starts to pull within five games of the Thunder in the Northwest Division.
In the midst of OKC’s all-out search for better consistency on defense during the past month, this night marked a rare occasion when the Thunder’s offense frantically scrambled to keep pace.
After hitting seven of its first nine shots from the floor, OKC missed 14 of 16 shots during one stretch to find itself down by a dozen points. This coincided with the Nuggets taking flight with the best fast-break game in the NBA.
Denver entered the game averaging nearly 11 points more than any other team in points-in-the-paint (57.4). Paint points include fast-break points and the Nuggets also lead the league in that category (19.5) while being second in points off turnovers (19.5).
Friday night was more of the same as the Nuggets outscored the Thunder 60-46 in the paint, 20-16 in fast-break points and 19-15 off turnovers.
In a shocking development, the Thunder was unable to overcome poor free-throw shooting. After draining 130 of 138 (.942) free throws in the previous five games, OKC uncharacteristically misfired at the line by converting 24 of 34 (.706).
With “boos” cascading from a hostile sellout crowd of 19,521, Thunder villain Russell Westbrook poured in a game-high 38 points, which included 15 in the first quarter.
“Russell was great, making the right plays,” said teammate Kevin Durant, who had 25 points, 14 rebounds tied the score at 103 by banking in a 10-footer with 17.6 seconds left before Lawson’s heroics. “When a guy’s got it going, you’ve got to keep feeding him and that’s what we did.”
In response to Westbrook blocking two half-court shot by Nuggets mascot “Rocky” during OKC’s last visit to Pepsi Center, fans booed Westbrook at every opportunity – during pre-game introductions, while he was dribbling and also at the free-throw line, where Westbrook went 12 for 17 (.706).
The Thunder jumped out to a 17-6 lead after the first four minutes and led 29-21 with 57.9 seconds left in the first quarter. That’s when the Nuggets went on a 16-0 run in a span of just 3:18 – primarily against the OKC bench – to lead 37-29 with 9:31 left in the second quarter.
“It wasn’t a good enough effort for us, particularly our second unit,” Thunder reserve forward Nick Collison said. “We really struggled at the end of the first and into the second and that’s really when the tide turned.”
During its dry spell, OKC went 0 for 8 from the floor and 0 for 2 at the free-throw line (two Serge Ibaka misses).
Meanwhile, Denver went 6 for 7 from the field, including two 3-pointers from reserve forward Wilson Chandler. Another dagger for OKC was an opposing player experiencing a career night, which has happened frequently all season.
In a 121-118 overtime loss to Denver here on Jan. 20, guard Corey Brewer erupted for what was then a season-high 26 points off the bench to spark the victory.
On Friday night, Chandler tied a career-high with 35 points off the bench, including a go-ahead layup with 22.4 seconds left.
“Wilson Chandler was making some tough shots over hands, some deep 3s, and Ty hit the tough game-winner,” Durant said. “We fought. We always fight. We made it a game, tied the game up in the end and made them shoot the shot we wanted them to shoot, contested over one of our best defenders. You have to tip your hat. He (Lawson) made it.”
Thunder sixth man Kevin Martin said of Chandler: “Good player, and good players feel it some nights.” Meanwhile, Martin missed his first four shots from the floor before finally hitting a 3-pointer with 8:14 left for his only points in 24-plus minutes of playing time.
“I put a lot of the blame on myself, if you want to put that out there,” Martin said of the second unit’s struggles. “It was just a really bad outing for me. I’m supposed to be a leader on that second group and I played like a rookie tonight. I’m going to put that on my plate for the second unit.”
The Thunder led by 11 after the first four minutes of the game and then found itself trailing by 12 with 3½ minutes left before halftime.
OKC went 2 for 16 (.125) to start the second quarter and didn’t get score in double-digits for the period until the 2:12 mark.
It took Westbrook swishing a 30-footer at the buzzer for the Thunder to shoot 31.6 percent (6 for 19) from the field in the second quarter and score 18 points for the period.
Scrambling back from a nine-point deficit at intermission, OKC on three occasions in the third quarter pulled to within one basket of forging a tie, only to surrender consecutive baskets to the Nuggets.
OKC finally tied the game at 91 with 5:40 remaining, only to watch Chandler drain a 3-pointer from the corner and Andre Miller score on a layup to pull back in front 96-91 with 5:10 left.