The Denver Nuggets came into their final game of the season against the Oklahoma City Thunder without any playoff implications meaning there was almost no extra pressure for their younger players, who ended up playing significant minutes with nearly half the Nuggets roster inactive.
While Denver did get valuable experience for their youth they ended up winning 111-105 over the Russell Westbrook-led Thunder.
After the ceremony for Westbrook's historic 42 triple doubles had been completed it was Malik Beasley who was out-playing the Most Valuable Player candidate. Beasley started as aggressive as you could expect considering his first career start was against Westbrook and he had 11 quick points that included a strong offensive rebound that led to an easy lay-in against Westbrook, a three-pointer, and a tough finish after receiving a pass from Jokic after Beasley cut perfectly when off-ball. He was showing off his shooting, scoring at the rim, athletic ability, and his off-ball cutting and looked like he belonged on the court the entirety of the game.
Beasley has not had a lot of time to showcase his talents this season but these last two games of the year were big for him to show off to the front office. To have a combo-guard at six-foot-five with extreme athletic ability that can play on or off the ball can be a huge boost for any NBA team. Add in Beasley's willingness to be a pest on defense and his competitiveness to never back down and you have a player that can grow into a legitimate role player on a winning team.
The Nuggets finished the first quarter down 26-25 behind Beasley's 11 points. Beasley also helped hold Westbrook to just three points on 1-7 shooting in the first frame. Nikola Jokic added three points, two rebounds, three assists, and three blocks in the first quarter alone.
The second quarter was full of runs for each team. The Thunder went on a 13-4 run at the beginning of the second quarter as things began to look bleak for Denver in their final game of the season. Denver did bounce back behind the post-play of Jokic down low and got back within four points but allowed Oklahoma City to extend their lead back to 13. Every time Denver fought the Thunder punched back.
Denver went into halftime down 64-56 as Jokic continued to pace Denver as he put up a monstrous 16 points, six rebounds, five assists, and five blocks in the first half alone and was on pace for a quadruple-double. Beasley finished the half with 13 points of his own. Denver was plagued with atrocious perimeter defense with their inexperienced backcourt and allowed the Thunder to shoot a scorching 7-14 from three-point distance in the first half.
Coming out of halftime the Thunder rested both Westbrook and Steven Adams and neither returned for the remainder of the game. The Nuggets continued to chip away at the Thunder lead as Jokic endlessly battled down low with all of the Thunder bigs. Jokic was getting to the line at an insane rate and finished the third quarter with 14 free throw attempts, with 11 makes, and put up 25 points, 11 rebounds, seven assists, and five blocks by the end of the third quarter.
Jamal Murray found some rhythm and helped the Nuggets take a two-point lead in the third quarter after making a pull-up three in transition off of a feed from Beasley. Eventually, the third quarter ended and Denver went into their final quarter of the season with a lead of 86-85.
Denver spent the fourth quarter staving off the Thunder. The game was within five points for the majority of the final quarter until Denver ripped off a 13-4 run that helped the Nuggets lead balloon to eight points.
Jokic then began hunting for what would be this seventh triple-double of the year and the Nuggets offense started sputtering. Thankfully, the Nuggets defense kept them afloat until Murray ripped off five-straight points for Denver including a strong one-handed dunk.
Denver, with a nine-point lead, then started to collapse. They played no defense as a team and Murray got trapped in the corner on a play that ended with Murray losing a jump-ball to Jerami Grant that dwindled their lead to just four points.
Murray then hit two free-throws to ice the game as Denver went on to win 111-105.
Jokic finished two assists shy of a triple-double with 29 points, 16 rebounds, eight assist, and five blocks on 9-14 shooting and 11-14 from the free-throw line.
Oscar Robertson honors Russell Westbrook
The Oklahoma City Thunder had a tribute for Westbrook before tipping off against the Nuggets. The video was nearly as iconic as Westbrook's accomplishments as they were compared him to the greats such as Wilt Chamberlain, Pete Rose and many other transcendental athletes from history, including the Big O himself.
Robertson himself was on the scene to pay tribute to Westbrook and was welcomed with prolonged cheers as soon as he was introduced. He was not only on the site to pay his respects to Westbrook but also gave a quick speech.
"When Russell was on this journey I felt I had to be here," Robertson said. "What he has done is historic in nature. People should be so proud of his accomplishment. I say congratulations and only one last thing...M.V.P!"
Russell Westbrook also spoke and gave credit to Robertson first and foremost. He credited Robertson for paving the way for himself and other professionals around the league. He followed that up with thanking his teammates and all of the Thunder fans that have supported him.
To say that the ceremony was special is a drastic understatement. Westbrook breaking the single-season triple double record is as difficult of a record to break as any and that staggering accomplishment was followed up with a fantastic tribute.
Denver played with just eight active players in Oklahoma City for their final game of the season. Jameer Nelson, Emmanuel Mudiay, Kenneth Faried, Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler, Gary Harris, and Will Barton were all out for a plethora of reasons.
Having that many players inactive allowed substantial playing time for the likes of Beasley, Murray, and Juancho Hernangomez.
Beasley had another gem of a game after rarely seeing the court for the majority of the season. In the past two games, he has t0talled 33 points on 14-29 shooting and 3-10 from three to go with eight rebounds five assists and three steals. Beasley finished with 17 points, three rebounds, and three assists with just two turnovers in 40 minutes of court time.
Hernangomez struggled tonight against the Thunder. He shot a horrendous 4-17 from the field and 1-9 from three. He finished with nine points and seven rebounds. Hernangomez has a ton of potential but it did not shine against the Thunder.
Murray continued to show off his ability to play point guard and put up another stuffed line of 27 points, two rebounds, and six assists while shooting 10-17 from the field and 4-5 from three. Murray has been showing off his passing ability as of late and is averaging 5.8 assists per game in his last six games and continued to look like he has all the tools to be a star player in the near future.
Denver's season comes to a close as the Nuggets finish with a record of 40-42 and head into the offseason looking toward the 2017 NBA Draft with high hopes for the future.