What the Thunder’s latest win in Denver tells us about OKC’s trajectory

What the Thunder’s latest win in Denver tells us about OKC’s trajectory

The Nuggets are 13-3 at home, and two of the losses have come against the Thunder.

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

| Dec 30, 2023, 6:47am CST

Brett Dawson

By Brett Dawson

Dec 30, 2023, 6:47am CST

OKLAHOMA CITY — Before the season started, Thunder general manager Sam Presti, in an apparent effort to slow the hype train barreling toward the NBA’s second-youngest team, invoked culinary caution. 

“We have to finish our breakfast,” Presti said then, reminding a room full of reporters that OKC’s current core hadn’t so much as made a playoff appearance together yet. 

And while a 119-93 rout of the reigning champion Nuggets on Friday in Denver was no arrival, and while the Thunder’s 21-9 record and league-best 9-4 mark on the road won’t necessarily translate to anything come playoff time, it’s reasonable to think Presti’s team at least is munching a figurative lunch. 

The Nuggets have lost three games this season at Ball Arena; two have come against the Thunder, in two weeks. Since losing to OKC on Dec. 16, Denver had reeled off six straight wins, a streak that ended Friday. The Nuggets are 9-2 in their past 11 games with both losses to the Thunder. 

The kids from Oklahoma City might not have arrived, but they appear well on their way. 

“We’re not championship level yet,” Thunder guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander told reporters after a 40-point night Friday against Denver. “We’re heading in the right direction for sure. I can feel it. I think guys on TV, I think everyone can feel it. We’re getting better. You just don’t want to get complacent and stay on that track and keep attacking day in and day out and hopefully we can get there one day.”


The Nuggets win was full of indicators that they’re getting closer. 

Among them:

Game-changing stars

It’s hardly breaking news that Gilgeous-Alexander is among the league’s best players. He was a first-team All-NBA selection last season. 

But he’s been a better, more efficient offensive player this season and a vastly improved defender, and he put that on display in Denver. His 40 points came on 14-of-20 shooting. He hit 2 of 3 3-pointers and made all 10 of his free throws. 

It was the 14th time this season Gilgeous-Alexander had scored 30 or more points on three or fewer 3-point attempts. 

Gilgeous-Alexander also had two steals and a block, the 250th of his career, continuing his most disruptive defensive season as a pro. 

But while he’s even more individually excellent, the big difference this season is how much help Gilgeous-Alexander’s getting. 

Chet Holmgren had a tone-setting 14-point first quarter Friday, part of a 24-point night. Jalen Williams struggled to make shots (4 for 10 shooting) but scored 11 points — seven in the fourth quarter — and added seven rebounds and a season-high nine assists.

And though those three have emerged as OKC’s top-tier players, the roster fits around them. The supporting pieces are key in wins like Friday’s — and they’ll matter more in playoff series when teams dig down on scouting to take away top options. 

In the first half Friday, OKC players besides Holmgren and Gilgeous-Alexander made 9 of 27 shots, and the Thunder led 54-48 at halftime. In the second half, the non-Chet/SGA players combined to shoot 14 of 30 and OKC outscored Denver 65-45. 

In a postgame sideline interview on Bally Sports Oklahoma, Gilgeous-Alexander credited Holmgren’s fast start — and contributions from Williams, Lu Dort and Josh Giddey — for his big outing. 

“We have so many weapons on the floor, I get to play in space,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “And when I play in space in my comfort zone, I have pretty good nights.”

The defense is improving 

If defense really does win championships, OKC is taking some steps toward contender status. 

The Thunder can hang its hat on contesting shots — thanks in part to Holmgren, it does so better than any team in the NBA — but ball pressure has proven the differentiator. 

OKC forces 16.8 turnovers per game and turns those into an average of 20.8 points, leading the league in both categories. The Thunder scored 25 points Friday off 17 Nuggets turnovers. 

“Obviously you have to be clean with the ball, you can’t play in a crowd,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “That’s something they do to most teams. You’re not going to give yourself a chance to win when you allow them to play to their strengths.”

It wasn’t just the turnovers. The Nuggets — who were playing on the second night of a back-to-back and without starting power forward Aaron Gordon — shot 42.4% from the floor and made 10 of 37 3-pointers. 

Even the rebounding — a consistent issue this season for OKC — went the Thunder’s way. It outrebounded the Nuggets 51-36, its most lopsided edge this season on the boards. That still needs work before OKC can think about making a postseason leap. 

But Friday was a high-level defensive performance. 

Two-time MVP Nikola Jokic had 19 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists on 9-for-10 shooting for Denver, but he committed seven turnovers. Star guard Jamal Murray was 4 for 15 from the floor. 

Thunder coach Mark Daigneault called it “a great multiple-effort game,” and maybe no sequence embodied it more than Jaylin Williams’ third-quarter defensive double play. 

First, J-Will blocked Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. on a layup attempt at the rim, then after Giddey threw the loose ball to the Nuggets, Williams slid into position and took a charge on a driving Peyton Watson. 

“J-Will was big-time tonight,” Daigneault said. “Just physicality on Jokic. He’s kept himself ready. There’s been nights where we’ve gone small and haven’t used him as much, and so impressive performance as it relates to readiness and mental toughness out of him.”

OKC is still growing

Last week, the Lakers came to Oklahoma City, shot the lights out and snapped a four-game losing streak with a win against the Thunder. 

Afterward, Daigneault lamented that his team lost its focus in critical stretches against a team it knew would have added motivation (center Anthony Davis had called the OKC game a must-win for the Lakers). 

The Nuggets figured to have a similar drive Friday night, having lost their last meeting to the Thunder 118-117 on Gilgeous-Alexander’s go-ahead bucket with 1.4 seconds to play. 

“I thought it was a good improvement from the Laker game,” Daigneault said. “I thought we could have been tighter and more ready against a very hungry opponent last week, and I felt we did that tonight. We came out and approached the game the right way.”

It was a major test, and there are more to come. 

Though the Thunder has the West’s second-best record, it has played a relatively light schedule — 30 games; Friday was Denver’s 34th — with limited back-to-back games. 

Those disclaimers won’t apply after a heavy January — 17 games, five sets of back-to-backs — that will tell us something more about this team. 

But so far, despite its youth, OKC has taken the right approach to most everything on its schedule. Friday was another example of how it can learn and adapt. 

Its first meeting with the Nuggets this season was a 128-95 loss at home on Oct. 29, its second was the thriller on Dec. 16 that Gilgeous-Alexander won in the closing seconds. Friday night was, in Malone’s words “an ass-whooping.” 

“Improvement’s put us in a position where we could win a game like this, and if we want to continue to find success in some of these games and find good outcomes, then we have to continue to improve, and that’s our challenge,” Daigneault said. “But the team has done a great job of that not only this season, but for multiple years now.”

 

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Brett Dawson, the Thunder beat writer at Sellout Crowd, has covered basketball for more than 20 seasons at the pro and college levels. He previously worked the Thunder beat at The Oklahoman and The Athletic and also has covered the New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers and L.A. Clippers. He’s covered college programs at Louisville, Illinois and Kentucky, his alma mater. He taught sports journalism for a year at the prestigious Missouri School of Journalism. You can reach him at [email protected] or find him sipping a stout or an IPA at one of Oklahoma City’s better breweries.

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