OKLAHOMA CITY — It is easy for opponents of the Oklahoma City Thunder to get caught up in the glitz and fury of Russell Westbrook. When he is knocking down 3-pointers, throwing down dunks and skying over big men for rebounds, all eyes are on the fiery point guard.
But when the Thunder really roll over teams is when their frontline is pounding the paint and commanding attention. It puts defenses in a difficult situation.
That was the case for the Denver Nuggets on Saturday as they took on the Thunder. While Westbrook finished the night with his 17th triple-double of the season, it was the Oklahoma City big men that wore down the undermanned Nuggets in a 121-106 victory at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“I think on both ends of the floor, we decided to go big,” Thunder center Enes Kanter said. “And we did an amazing job on both ends. Not just offensively. Both ends we put matchup pressure on on them.”
Westbrook racked up 32 points, 17 rebounds and 11 assists. That included going 7 of 12 from 3-point range.
Thunder center Steven Adams added 16 points and four blocked shots and Victor Oladipo scored 15 points on 7 of 19 shooting. Oklahoma City (22-16) won the battle in the paint 56-48.
Wilson Chandler came off the bench to pace the Nuggets with 24 points. However, he scored only five in the second half. Will Barton scored 21 on 6 of 11 shooting for Denver (14-23).
“Not having (Nikola) Jokic and (Gary) Harris was a big absence,” Denver coach Mike Malone said. “Obviously Gary Harris would have been a key guy to try and guard Russell Westbrook. And obviously, offensively, we only had 18 assists tonight. With Jokic out and we play through him so much, that he is able to generate some easy looks for us. But our guys competed. We played hard.”
It was the fifth straight game Denver allowed an opponent to score 120 or more points. All have been loses.
Barton drained a 3-pointer with 5:43 left in the fourth quarter to cut the Thunder lead down to 102-94. But Westbrook came back and answered with a pull up 3-pointer of his own. He then came up with a steal that led to a 3-point play by Jerami Grant.
The Nuggets turned the ball over on the ensuing possession and Westbrook made them pay with another 3-pointer. After Jusef Nurkic scored, Westbrook drained an even deeper 3-pointer to put Oklahoma City up 114-98 and put the contest away.
“When he’s got it going,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Westbrook, “I want him to heat-check a little bit.”
The win ends a three game losing streak for Oklahoma City, which with Cameron Payne in uniform was at full strength for the first time this season. It even allowed him and Westbrook to renew their customary dance to start the game.
“Back to the norm, back to the norm,” Westbrook said.
But it was rookie Domantas Sabonis who got the team off to a quick start. He scored nine points in the first quarter as Oklahoma City held a slight 24-22 advantage.
“We work on post ups every day,” Kanter said. “(Sabonis) did an amazing job of lifting the guy up. We’ve been telling him they are switching. So when they switch, punish them. And he did an amazing job of it.”
With the Nuggets playing with one less big man, the Thunder tried to exploit the paint around the goal. Everyone from Kanter to Adams to Sabonis took turns attacking the rim.
However, Oklahoma City had no answer for Chandler early. The Denver forward terrorized the Thunder defenders with his ability to shoot perimeter shots and also drive to the hoop.
Chandler kept the Nuggets close until the rest of the squad got its offense going.
Neither team played any remnant of good defense in the first. The game was tied at 60 at halftime and both shot 48 percent from the field.
In the second half, the Thunder suddenly realized they had a mismatch when Adams was on the floor. They went to him exclusively late in the third quarter rode him to an eight-point lead heading into the fourth.
“We took some baby steps in the right direction in terms of playing hard and trying to play defense,” Malone said. “On the road, when you are undermanned, you have to do it for four quarters.”
NOTES: G Cameron Payne was in the Oklahoma City lineup for the first time this season after returning from preseason foot surgery. Payne played two games with the Oklahoma City Blue in the Developmental League before being called up Saturday morning, “He has worked really hard to get back to this point,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Obviously he is fully cleared to play. He’s got a couple of D-League games under his belt. I think it’s good for him to get out there and compete and play. He’s jumped through a lot of hoops to get himself to this point.” … Denver C Nikola Jokic missed the game against Oklahoma City due to illness. Jusuf Nurkic started in his place. … Denver coach Mike Malone said he needs to finds ways to get Will Barton going offensively. “We need that guy that comes into the game, has that energy, has that flair,” Malone said. ‘We’ve got to get the thrill back. Right now we have Will Barton. We need the thrill.”