DENVER — It was Jan. 20 when OKC last played Denver at Pepsi Center. The Thunder was the toast of the NBA with a 32-8 record and had beaten the Nuggets four days earlier by 20 points at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Denver was 24-18 at that point, nine games behind OKC in the Northwest Division, still recovering from the league's most brutal early road schedule and fresh off a loss at home against the then 7-29 Washington Wizards.
Sure, the Nuggets are tough to beat in the mile-high altitude, but this seemed the perfect time to catch them — tired and teetering on depression.
Sparked by the Corey Brewer's 15 fourth-quarter points, Denver led 107-96 with just three minutes left in regulation. That's when Russell Westbrook took several steps toward becoming an arch enemy of Nuggets fans.
It was a vintage night for Westbrook, which is to say he was a combination of Rocky Mountain High and Death Valley low.
By night's end, Westbrook had scored 36 points, drained 15 of 17 free throws, handed out nine assists, grabbed eight rebounds and committed seven turnovers. He had also blocked two shots, both of them half-court shots from the Nuggets' mascot, Rocky, where Westbrook jumped up and snared the ball directly in front of the rim while being cascaded by boos from the sellout crowd of 19,155.
“Russell made a lot of friends here,” Denver coach George Karl said sarcastically afterward. “He's a feisty guy who likes to create intensity. I like intensity.”
OKC's final three field goals in regulation were 3-pointers from Kevin Durant, Kevin Marin and Westbrook's game-tying bomb with 22.9 seconds left that wound up forcing overtime.
Three offensive fouls in the final three minutes of the extra period — all on illegal screens — proved to be the Thunder's undoing in a 121-118 overtime loss.
An ailing Denver squad suddenly seemed healed after beating the team with the NBA's best record and promptly went on a nine-game winning streak.
Meanwhile, OKC suddenly started to run hot and cold — a loss, followed by a win, followed by a loss, etc. — and went 4-4 over its next eight games.
Four straight wins were followed by three straight losses, which have been followed by three straight wins, which brings us to Friday's nationally televised (ESPN) 9:30 p.m. contest at Pepsi Center.
The Nuggets (37-22) have gone 12-4 since that overtime victory over the Thunder (42-15), which has since gone 10-6.
Denver is hot and Westbrook is still Westbrook.
“I'm sure the next time we'll have some locker room talk,” Karl said of Westbrook back on Jan. 20. “I saw him block the shot and then he threw the ball into the crowd. I know in the rule book it says you're not allowed to throw the ball into the crowd.”
Westbrook was not fined or disciplined.
Denver still flies high at home and owns a 24-3 record at Pepsi Center, second only to the 25-3 world champion Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena.
While Durant (28.6) and Westbrook (23.1) remain the NBA's top scoring tandem, the Nuggets counter with an attack that has six players scoring in double-digits and nine players ranging from 8.0 points to 16.9 points.
Denver's defense feeds its offense. The Nuggets are second in rebounding, second in steals, third in scoring, third in assists, fourth in blocks and fifth in opponent turnovers.