By Michael Kinney
OKLAHOMA CITY — If not for a 35-foot last-second 3-pointer by Russell Westbrook, the Denver Nuggets would have entered the final game of the regular season with a shot at reaching the postseason.
Unfortunately for Denver, when they faced Oklahoma City for the second time in four days, nothing was on the line.
With neither team playing at full strength, the Nuggets pulled out a 111-105 victory Wednesday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
“The fact we went 5-2 in our last seven games speaks directly to our guys understanding the pressure of the games we were playing,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “And, even after that devastating loss at home to Oklahoma City, we still had a job to do. Our season wasn’t over, and our young guys took it seriously.”
Nikola Jokic scored 29 points to lead the short-handed Nuggets. He went 9 of 14 from the field and 11 of 14 from the free-throw line and added 16 rebounds and eight assists. Jamal Murray scored 27 points and Malik Beasley 17 as the Nuggets ended the season with a 40-42 record.
Westbrook played just 18 minutes and ended the night with five points, eight assists and five rebounds for Oklahoma City. He finished the season averaging a triple-double — 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists — and won his second scoring title.
Taj Gibson paced Oklahoma City with 13 points and seven rebounds. Enes Kanter scored 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting for the Thunder, who open the playoffs Sunday night against the Houston Rockets.
After Westbrook rested Tuesday night at Minnesota, it looked like he was going to sit out the final game of the season as well. But with NBA legend Oscar Robertson in town, Westbrook played for a half.
Early in the first quarter, Westbrook knocked down his 200th 3-pointer of the season — a career high. His previous best was 101.
Alex Abrines also set a rookie record for Oklahoma City with his 94th 3-pointer, which beat James Harden’s previous mark by one.
The Nuggets put up very little resistance early against the Thunder’s first team. Playing only seven players, they allowed the Thunder to do pretty much anything they wanted.
Denver did get solid play from Jokic, Beasley and Murray. They kept the Nuggets in the game in the first half as they trailed 64-56.
“We were just trying to play as hard as possible,” Denver’s Darrell Arthur said. “My whole thing was finishing out the season strong, playing together, playing as a team, letting the young guys get their feet wet and letting the fans see what they have to expect next year.”
The Thunder went into rest mode to start the second half. Both Westbrook and Steven Adams stayed on the bench the rest of the night and let the reserves carry the team the rest of the way.
Before the postseason starts, Westbrook took a quick moment to reflect on the magnitude of the night.
“It’s never too soon to be blessed for things that you have done,” Westbrook said. “I think of it differently. I think that it is all blessings coming from them and above to put me in the situation to be here with Oscar Robertson and be here in Oklahoma City and to be able to do different things on the basketball floor.”
Michael Kinney is a Freelance Writer with Eyeamtruth.com