Nuggets battle Thunder to the end without Nikola Jokic, but poor shooting proves costly as OKC prevails

Nuggets battle Thunder to the end without Nikola Jokic, but poor shooting proves costly as OKC prevails

OKLAHOMA CITY — Yes, the Nuggets missed Nikola Jokic. But they missed shots even more.

In a contest between shorthanded contenders that wavered between defensive excellence and offensive ugliness, Denver buckled for a key stretch and recovered too late in a 105-100 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday night.

Playing without Nikola Jokic (lower back pain) for just the second time this season, the Nuggets (33-16) shot 39% from the field including a collection of clumsy misses at the rim. But they managed to lead most of the night at Paycom Center thanks to an admirable defensive effort against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and company.

It was 70-63 Denver with two minutes left in the third quarter when the Thunder finally unleashed a 20-2 run that spanned four minutes between frames. Without Jalen Williams and Isaiah Joe, Gilgeous-Alexander led all players with 30 points.

Aaron Gordon wasn’t efficient, but his two-way tenacity almost saved the Nuggets during a late comeback. Chet Holmgren drained a broken-play three after an offensive rebound with 22 seconds left to go ahead 101-97, effectively ending Denver’s run.

The moments that haunted the Nuggets were in transition: Lu Dort chasing down Kentavious Caldwell-Pope from behind to disrupt a fast-break and knock the ball off Caldwell-Pope’s leg with 1:48 left in a 96-93 game, or KCP pulling up for a missed three with a man advantage moments earlier.

Jokic’s absence isn’t expected to be a long-term concern, Nuggets coach Michael Malone said before opening tip. Denver is emerging from a 10-game stretch featuring nine opponents in the playoff picture. Next up is a pair of home matchups against the Trail Blazers.

“That back pain was not improving, wasn’t getting any better,” Malone said, “so it was just determined by medical staff to try to get that back right, rehab and treatment.”

The only way the Nuggets might fight off the Thunder without the two-time MVP was by scrapping and clawing. They seemed ready for the challenge. Disciplined defense propelled Denver to a 13-point lead early with Peyton Watson, Gordon and Caldwell-Pope all sharing the floor in a new starting lineup. Both teams had six blocks at the intermission, and the only scorers in double figures were Gilgeous-Alexander and Reggie Jackson. They had 12 each (10 in the first quarter for SGA), but they were shooting a combined 7 for 21 from the floor.

Malone also tried out a new second unit, staggering Michael Porter Jr. (15 points) and playing Zeke Nnaji at backup five instead of DeAndre Jordan. Joining forces with Jackson, Christian Braun and Justin Holiday, that lineup held relatively firm in the first half (minus two in six minutes) but was responsible for Oklahoma City’s decisive run in the second half.

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