OKLAHOMA CITY — Late in the second quarter of a game here Sunday, Nuggets center Nikola Jokic held the ball 15 feet from his basket as Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren hounded him.
Jokic looked not quite offended, but unbothered. As Holmgren played close and stabbed at the ball, Jokic coolly catapulted a 15-foot jumper and buried it.
It was a characteristic swish for the Nuggets, who pounded the Thunder 128-95 at the Paycom Center behind 28 points, 14 rebounds and five assists from Jokic, the two-time NBA MVP.
Denver shot 60.2%, held OKC star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to seven points on 2-for-16 shooting and looked every bit the reigning NBA champion it is.
“It’s impressive how sharp — not even in this game, the other two games — how sharp they’ve been this early in the season coming off of a championship and a late run,” OKC coach Mark Daigneault said. “It’s got to be hard to gear it back up the way that they are, and they picked up right where they left off.”
It was a win that made the differences glaringly apparent between the Nuggets (3-0) and Thunder (2-1).
You have to look a little harder to see the similarities.
But you can find them.
In Denver, Oklahoma City has a team to which it can aspire, a realistic blueprint for building a winner outside the NBA’s glamour markets.
Jokic and Jamal Murray have grown together with the Nuggets, and have taken their share of postseason pummeling. In seven years prior to last season’s title, the Nuggets — who had Jokic and coach Michael Malone for the entire stretch — reached one Western Conference Finals, two conference semis and took a first-round loss. In the first three years of the Jokic/Malone partnership, Denver missed the playoffs.
That “relationship with adversity,” Daigneault said, is part of what strikes him about Denver
“They’ve had a lot of ups and downs,” Daigneault said. “I remember playing them a couple years back where they’ve been in some really tough stretches. And they’ve allowed that to kind of forge them forward and pull them together, which I think is hard to do for any team in any context, but certainly a team in the NBA with all the noise that can come with that.”
It’s a noisy league, but Denver built quietly.
Jokic has never threatened — directly or through second-hand sources — to bail on the Nuggets if the club didn’t find him help. Murray, who’s battled back from an ACL injury that cost him the playoffs in 2021 and 2022, has grown into an ideal complement to Jokic — and along the way hasn’t politicked for a move to a place where he could be the star.
On the surface, there are cultural parallels between the franchises, a no-nonsense competitiveness that has helped push Denver to the top of the NBA and might someday get Oklahoma City there.
Thunder players say they’re focused on winning. Talk to any of them, and they’ll say their teammates are winners, that they focus on doing the things it takes to win.
They’re showing it, too, in their unselfishness; their commitment.
Denver embodies it. The Nuggets on Sunday moved the ball like it was on fire. Jokic picked apart the OKC defense the way he’s done so many, unfazed by a hand in his face or a hard-charging help defender.
And Denver was connected defensively. It cut off Thunder drives and contested jump shots. The Nuggets managed to keep Gilgeous-Alexander off the free-throw line — he was 3 for 4 — and prevented him from doing damage in the paint when he got there.
“They’ve built something, clearly, that works in the league, and it’s paid dividends and it’s rewarded them,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “They’re a good basketball team, they play the right way and that’s the right way to go about the game for sure.”
The Nuggets were three years into Jokic’s career before they had a winning season, and four before they reached the playoffs.
“I was given eight years to win a championship, and not many guys in my seat have (been) given that amount of time,” Malone said.
It takes time to reach the mountaintop, and the NBA can be an impatient place.
There’s no guarantee this Thunder core has what it takes to get there, no assurance it has a player who can elevate the franchise in the postseason the way Jokic has. And Sunday was evidence of just how far OKC has to go.
But Gilgeous-Alexander is 25. The rest of the Thunder’s starters are 24 and younger. Holmgren has the potential to be a defensive game-changer; he’s 21. And OKC is armed with an arsenal of future draft picks with which it can maneuver in search of the pieces it’s missing.
The Nuggets have had (and taken) the time to build brick by brick.
Malone hopes their approach is an example to the league that patience pays. And in Oklahoma City, he sees a team with the right foundation. Drafting well is key, Malone said, and Thunder GM Sam Presti “obviously” does that. Daigneault, Malone said is “a hell of a coach.”
And Gilgeous-Alexander — Sunday’s struggles notwithstanding — has the look of a player around whom a franchise can build a winner. OKC needs him to stay the course, and he’s given no indication he’s ready to veer off.
Gilgeous-Alexander was asked Sunday about the patience of letting young players around him develop versus a desire to fast-track winning, and his answer didn’t reveal much.
“I just control what I can control,” he said. “ I work hard. I try to be the best me every night, and the group of guys around me do the same thing. So it makes it easier to play, but I honestly don’t even really focus on that (big-picture question). I just try to control what I can control every night, every day.”
Ultimately, he wants what Denver has.
On Sunday, the Nuggets showed he’s a long way from getting it.
But they’re proof, too, that the route exists.
“Draft young players, develop those young players and give it some time to to come together,” Malone said. “And I think they’re on that path.”