Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone says his team hasn’t discussed the flagrant one assessed to Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook in the opening minute of the two teams’ preseason matchup last month and if there will be any ripple effects that surface when the two teams meet again Thursday night.
“It’s not even something we’ve talked about, to be honest with you,” Malone said at shootaround Thursday morning.
Following the incident, which occurred on Denver’s first offensive possession of the game and overshadowed the Thunder’s 98-86 preseason win in Denver back on Oct. 10, Malone said he thought Westbrook was trying to send a message.
“You mean the flagrant two? Oh, that’s right they called it a flagrant one. I apologize,” Malone uttered with a straight face after the loss. “That goes back to last game here. That was sending a message and what I’m proud of with Nikola is he took it and it didn’t affect him.”
“We have a very talented and deep team but we also have to learn to bring a toughness every single night we step on the floor,” Malone said.
In the Thunder’s 106-105 win in Denver late last season that might have prompted Westbrook’s flagrant, the reigning Most Valuable Player scored 50 points, eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention and broke Oscar Robertson‘s record for triple-doubles in a season all in the same night. There was also some chippiness in that game from both sides that could have carried over.
“As far as Russell and Nikola, we just want to play the game,” Malone said Thursday morning. “We’re much more focused on not turning the ball over against a great defense than the Russell, Nikola dynamic and just have to keep our heads if anything does happen.”
The Nuggets, and Jokic, who even admitted postgame that he flopped on Westbrook’s foul, are more concerned with limiting turnovers against a talented Thunder defense that’s the league’s second-best unit on that end of the floor so far this season.
Oklahoma City ranks second in the league in defensive efficiency and is giving up just 97.0 points per 100 possessions. The Thunder are also allowing the fewest paint points in the NBA at just 37.4 per game.
“One of their strengths is one of our biggest weaknesses,” Malone said. “That’s going to I think be the main storyline tonight, is how do we handle their aggressive defense? We have to make sure we’re not playing in a crowd, trying to over penetrate, getting ourselves in trouble.”
What Malone was getting at with his comments is that the Nuggets have to limit turnovers. Its been a focal point all season and with two young point guards in Jamal Murray (20 years-old) and Emmanuel Mudiay (21-years-old) who take up most of Denver’s ball-handling responsibilites outside of Jokic, a steep learning curve where the two match up against a gauntlet of Western Conference defenses practically every night was expected.
“We watch film on it, we harp on it,” Malone said of the turnovers at practice on Wednesday. “If we do that against OKC, they’re going to come in here looking for their first win in four games and run us out of the gym.”
The Nuggets are only averaging 15.6 turnovers per game — which amounts to roughly a league-average mark, but the issue for Denver is that they’re allowing opponents to score 21.4 points per game off those turnovers. That ranks the Nuggets as the second-worst in the league in that category to the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Mudiay, Jokic, and Paul Millsap are all averaging over two turnovers per game.
“The balance is make the simple play,” Malone said. “And it’s not just for those two because hey, Nikola is a great playmaker but he’s turned the ball over at a high level. Paul has turned it over at times so it’s all our players just the constant reminder of don’t play in a crowd, make the simple play and get off of it.”
Denver’s point guard and mainly Murray will be tested on the other end of the floor as well. Westbrook, who comes into Thursday night’s matchup with the Nuggets averaging 20.1 points, 9.3 rebounds and 10.9 assists per game, is “just another beast,” according to Murray and will be a focus defensively for Denver, as well as their two other All-Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony.
But the Thunder, as Malone noted come into Denver on a three-game losing streak compounded by perhaps their worst defeat of the season, an eight-point loss in Sacramento on Tuesday where Oklahoma City scored just 86 points. On the year, the Thunder are the league’s 22nd-ranked offense and have been abysmal defensively in crunch time. In games that have been within five points or less with five minutes remaining Oklahoma City is 0-5 and are a -42 as a team in just 21 minutes.
“It’s going to take a 48-minute game,” Murray said. “Last time they were in here in the preseason, they hit us and we didn’t hit back so we got to make sure we go in there and hit back or hit first.”
ABA Night Kicks
At shootaround prior to Denver’s Tuesday night win over the Brooklyn Nets, Nuggets’ second-year point guard Jamal Murray had a present waiting for him from Adidas. It was a custom pair of the new Crazy Explosive 2017’s made special for Murray to be worn during the Nuggets’ ABA night Thursday against the Thunder when the organization is set to honor legends Spencer Haywood, Ralph Simpson, and Chuck Williams in a halftime ceremony.
“They’re for tonight,” Murray said Thursday morning. “But I just decided to wear them last game too. I couldn’t help myself.”
Murray scored four points on 1-4 shooting and registered two rebounds and four assists with four turnovers in Denver’s 112-104 win over and is hoping for a better outing against Westbrook and the Thunder. After suffering through a 2-22 slump to start the season from three-point range, Murray is shooting 9-25 from distance over his last six games but went 0-2 from deep versus the Nets.
“It’s just basketball, it’s not going to be your night every night,” Murray said. “I don’t think about the struggles too much anymore. They’re going to happen. The good days are going to happen and you can’t get too high or too low.”
On the footwear front, the 20-year-old, who notes that the shoes came as a surprise and he had no say in the design or style, hopes he can track down a few extra pairs.
“Hopefully I can get some more of those,” Murray said. “Because they’re fire.”