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The Denver Nuggets have been one of the NBA’s best teams in the first half of games this season.

They’ve also been the league’s worst after halftime.

Heading into their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday in Oklahoma City, Nuggets acting coach Popeye Jones is pushing for better out of his team, especially in the early minutes of the third quarter, when things have often gone awry for the Nuggets.

“For some reason we play a little sloppy starting third quarters, and I tried to challenge them,” Jones said after Nikola Jokic’s big third quarter helped Denver to a 121-111 win over Sacramento on Friday.

Denver’s first-half net rating — the difference between points scored and points allowed per 100 possessions — is 7.5, among the top five in the league.

But after halftime, the Nuggets are a league-worst minus-8.8 and their differential between halves is the NBA’s largest by more than three points.

That swing was evident in the first meeting between Denver and the Thunder, on Dec. 22 in Oklahoma City, especially in the third quarter.

The Nuggets scored just 14 points in the third as the Thunder jumped ahead by 22 after three en route to a 108-94 win.

Denver comes into Sunday’s game having won four of six, with Jokic scoring at least 22 points in seven consecutive games since scoring just 13 — his second-lowest of the season — in that loss to the Thunder.

Oklahoma City has dropped six of its last eight since that win, including its last three.

In Friday’s 135-105 loss to Minnesota at home, the Thunder tied a season high with 20 turnovers. Oklahoma City struggled with turnovers in each of their last two games, both losses to the Timberwolves.

Minnesota scored 51 combined points off the Thunder’s 38 turnovers in the two games, though Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault isn’t too concerned about that trend.

“The turnovers have not been a huge problem this year. The defense has not been a huge problem this year,” Daigneault said. “We certainly have to learn the lessons and look in the mirror and own the game, but not overreact and not internalize it as a trend unless it becomes one.

“We’ve just got to get ourselves back on track.”

One of the bright spots for Oklahoma City has been the recent play of Aaron Wiggins. Wiggins has been one of the Thunder’s top defenders when he’s been in the lineup and has continued to grow offensively.

“I think he’s really learning how to be aggressive inside of his role,” Daigneault said.

Denver got most of its coaching staff back in Friday’s win, though head coach Michael Malone missed his fourth consecutive game since landing in the league’s health and safety protocol.

The Nuggets are 2-2 with Jones as acting head coach.

“We hope to get our lead singer back soon,” Jones said.

Denver’s Petr Cornelie was placed in the protocol Friday while Oklahoma City’s Isaiah Roby has missed the last two games after landing in the COVID-19 protocol. The Thunder have also been without center Derrick Favors for the last two games due to back soreness.

–Field Level Media