The Denver Nuggets and Oklahoma City Thunder are a part of a five-team group bunched from third to seventh place in the Western Conference standings.
With seven games remaining in the regular season in the NBA’s restart near Orlando, games among the group take on magnified importance.
That will be the case Monday, when the Nuggets and Thunder meet in each team’s second game since the season resumed.
Oklahoma City picked up right where it left off after the nearly five-month break, extending its winning streak to four with Saturday’s 110-94 win over the Utah Jazz, another of the teams in that tight bunch.
“One game down, seven to go,” Thunder point guard Chris Paul said after the game.
Oklahoma City has been one of the league’s surprises throughout the season.
Led by Paul, the remade Thunder (41-24) have climbed to fifth in the West, just 1.5 games behind the Nuggets (43-23) for third.
Paul said the Thunder were in better position to compete with the best teams in the league now than they were when the league shut down in early March, especially pointing to the availability of Andre Roberson.
Roberson returned Saturday for his first regular-season action in more than two-and-a-half years.
“When you talk about that big gap we’ve had since March, to see how much better we’ve gotten as a team, to see Dre Roberson out there hooping, it’s special,” Paul said. “It almost gives you goosebumps, right? Just because you know how much work guys have put in. And to see it come to fruition in a game, it’s special.”
Things went much differently for the Nuggets, who were beaten 125-105 by Miami in their first game back.
Denver was without three starters in the loss. Will Barton, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray all missed the game with various ailments but Nuggets coach Michael Malone said his team’s problems in their first game back went far deeper than injuries.
“I saw a lot of guys out there playing hard. Whether you have guys out from injury or coronavirus, that’s unacceptable,” Malone said. “If you turn the ball over and walk down the floor because you’re feeling sorry for yourself that does not sit well with me. I like guys who play hard. I’m attracted to guys who go out there and no matter what’s going on, find a way to give effort. We need to find those guys.”
Now a team that looked for much of the season capable of contending with the Los Angeles teams at the top of the West is in danger of falling into the lower reaches of the playoff picture.
“We cannot think about the playoffs,” Nuggets center Nikola Jokic said.
While Malone was frustrated, he also said there was no reason for Denver to panic. There’s not much time to bounce back, though.
The game is the third and final regular-season meeting between the teams.
The teams have split the first two, with each team winning on their home floor. In the last meeting on Feb. 21 in Oklahoma City, the Thunder won 113-101 behind a 29-point performance by Paul.
–Field Level Media