Thunder Journal: Dennisless Thunder fall to Nikola Nuggets 121-113 in OT
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There’s so many excuses, sorry, reasons we can choose from to explain why the Thunder lost a winnable game to the shorthanded Nuggets.
The fan favorite seems to be bad ref calls. It’s a popular choice because, well, it’s not entirely false. Fans of the losing team always feel like their squad got Joey Crawforded by the obviously biased and blind refs, and usually the fans are looking through their purple and gold tinted glasses. But sometimes the complaints are valid. And I’d say the Nuggets shooting a Thunder opponent high 39 free throws, many of them of the ticky tack variety in critical moments, is a legitimate gripe.
Bad calls are a valid reason, but that’s not why the Thunder lost.
Chris Paul offered another reason in his postgame media Zoom call.
“If I make that free throw with 2.9 seconds left, I think we win that game,” Paul confessed without even being asked. “Could’ve won. Should’ve won.”
He’s right of course. If Paul, the statistically most clutch player in the NBA this season, makes that free throw we are likely celebrating the Thunder’s 5 game winning streak and planning a postseason as the #3 seed right now.
The missed free throw from a 90% free throw shooter is a valid reason, but one missed shot is not why the Thunder lost.
How about something way out of left field: the Nuggets are just a better team than the Thunder? More specifically, Nikola Jokic is a triple double nightmare, a center who can shoot, score at the rim, make plays for others and basically do anything he wants on a basketball court. It’s true. Despite OKC having two of the better defensive bigs in the league in Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel, no team can really do much to stop The Joker. And in overtime, he bullied Adams (oh sure, NOW you hold your whistles) for a bucket, hit a ridiculous bank shot and nailed a long, contested 2 at the end of the shot clock to steal the game.
Jokic is a problem. But he’s not why the Thunder lost.
This is where you expect me to pull a cheap writer’s trick and say, “The reason the Thunder lost is all of the above. There were bad ref calls, Chris Paul missed a game winning free throw, and Nikola Jokic is a monster.” Type a witty little one liner at the end, add my game notes and hit “publish.” Boom, game recap #66 in the books.
The reason the Thunder lost is because they didn’t have the reason why they win.
OKC has by far the best trifecta in the NBA this season. Prior to Bubble play, the vaunted three headed point guard attack with Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder had a net rating of +28.6 per 100 possessions. It’s easily the most dominant lineup in the league. Think the Golden State Death Lineup, but with more likable players.
Daily Thunder’s Aidan Elrod wrote a fantastic, comprehensive piece about the Thunder Trifecta (trademark pending) here: https://dailythunder.com/okc-three-guard-lineup-torching-the-nba/. In it, Aidan uncovered the fact that since NBA.com began tracking lineup data in 2007-2008, the CP3-SGA-DS lineup is the second best three man grouping of the past 13 years, second only to the 2016 Warriors’ Curry, Klay and Iggy lineup. And the Warriors’ trio was only +.4 better.
Schroder had more important matters than dribbling a basketball at hand. He now has a beautiful baby girl who will be dribbling all over her daddy Dennis over the coming days.
But with one third of the Thunder Three out of the Bubble, OKC was without their essential reason for winning. It’d be like Voltron trying to defend the universe but one of the five members is absent and tending to personal affairs. You can’t form Voltron and defeat Skeletor or Mumm-ra or whomever without all five of the magic robot vehicle thingies. My faded memory of 80’s cartoons notwithstanding, the point remains. The Thunder’s three point guard lineup is as essential to their success as Captain America’s shield, the Hulk’s strength or Batman’s writing team.
Can the Thunder win when one of CP3, Shai or Schroder is out? Of course. And they almost did against the Nuggets. Some better reffing, a made Chris Paul free throw or Nikola Jokic not being superhuman, and OKC is the 4 seed right now.
But none of those things would’ve mattered in the first place if the most lethal lineup in the league was on the floor.
- Good news: if the season were to end today, the Thunder would keep their 1st round draft pick.
- As much fun as it is to win, since OKC is virtually guaranteed to play either the Rockets, Nuggets or Jazz in the first round and there is no homecourt advantage in the Bubble, would it be better for the Thunder to just remain 6th and keep their pick?
- This was the first Thunder loss since exactly 5 months ago: March 3rd against the Clippers. So OKC isn’t due to lose again until January 3, 2021.
- Coming into this game, the Thunder were 4-0 in overtime this season.
- Paul Millsap’s jersey read: “Vote 4 Millsap”. Move over, Kanye.
- Andre Roberson, Hamidou Diallo and Nerlens Noel were the first players off the bench. Loved seeing Dre come in early. He struggled offensively this game, but he looked good on the defensive end and he moved well over all.
- My advice to Coach of the Year Billy Donovan: Every Thunder offensive possession should end in a Chris Paul midrange jumper.
- The young guys came back to earth offensively after torching the Jazz. Bazley, Dort and Diallo were a combined 2-10 from 3.
- Dort’s defense, though, was still top notch. He was credited with 2 steals and 1 block, but it feels like he had three times that.
- Diallo was somehow a +19 in his 24 minutes. He was 1-5 from the field, but he did grab 7 rebounds and dish out 4 assists.
- Nerlens Noel with another 3 blocks after swatting away 4 shots against the Jazz.
- Abdel Nader was fantastic and provided a spark off the bench in Schroder’s absence. He was 5-6 from the field, 3-4 from 3 and scored 13 points in 13 minutes.
- CP3, Gallinari and Shai all scored over 20 efficient points. But all three missed key throws down the stretch. Still, hard to pin this one on the Thunder’s three best players.
- Lu Dort says his favorite player growing up in Canada was Russell Westbrook. You can tell by the way he plays. He’s got that Why Not? mentality.
- Mike Muscala fell down hard taking a charge. He went out with concussion symptoms, which was too bad because he looked good in his limited minutes, just as he has all Bubble long.
- Shai turned what was one of his worst games this season into one of his best games. His 4th quarter play was outstanding. He looked like a star rallying his team from behind late in the game.
- Billy Donovan should have just put the Thunder’s 5 best free throw shooters in for OT.
- Up next: Thunder vs Lakers. With LA clinching the #1 overall seed, will they load manage LeBron and/or Davis? If they do, then a Schroder-less OKC team has a shot to win. If they don’t, well, just try to remember how great it would be to keep our 1st round draft pick.