Surprising Thunder take aim at 1st-place Nuggets

The Oklahoma City Thunder look to continue their rise in the Northwest Division when they host the first-place Denver Nuggets on Friday night.

The Nuggets took a five-game lead over the Thunder into the All-Star break, a gap that was one game wider before Denver lost 120-116 to the Los Angeles Lakers while Oklahoma City was winning 123-118 at New Orleans in their respective final games before the time off.

Including Friday’s showdown, the Nuggets and Thunder will meet three times over the final 27 games of the season, including twice at Oklahoma City.

Denver got the jump on the season-series tiebreaker with a 110-102 home win over the Thunder in December. Nikola Jokic‘s 28-point, 14-rebound, 12-assist triple-double trumped Steven Adams‘ 18-point, 14-rebound double-double in their big-man head-to-head.

The triple-double was Jokic’s fourth of 11 this season. He went into the All-Star break with the third-most triple-doubles in the league, trailing only co-leaders LeBron James and Luka Doncic, each of whom had 12.

The nine days off couldn’t have come at a worse time for Jokic, who played brilliantly in January, averaging 23.4 points and 10.3 rebounds, and has been even better in February, during which he’s put up 27.0 points and 12.0 rebounds in six games.

The Nuggets used the break to get healthier. Mason Plumlee, who missed the last 12 games with an ankle injury, and Michael Porter Jr., who sat six in a row with an ankle ailment, have been cleared to return to face the Thunder.

Porter has ranked among the most productive rookies in the league since Jan. 15, averaging 14.9 points and 9.6 rebounds.

«The break was good for me,» he told reporters at practice Wednesday. «Injuries happen. I’m just happy that it wasn’t more serious. I’m ready to play again. I’m excited.»

The Thunder were just 11-14 after they lost at Denver in December. They have since gone 22-8, getting balanced production from a lineup that was significantly impacted by offseason deals that netted Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari.

Oklahoma City went into the break having won 10 of 13, with Dennis Schroder (22.4), Paul (20.8), Gallinari (20.4) and Gilgeous-Alexander (18.1) all averaging at least 18 points over that stretch.

Schroder admitted over the break that life after Russell Westbrook, dealt to Houston in a draft pick-laden deal that netted Paul, has been an adjustment.

«I mean, Russell’s my guy,» he admitted to reporters this week. «But Russell is Russell Westbrook. He’s earned everything he’s done in the NBA. He’s a hell of a player.

«With Chris Paul (running the offense), I think it’s just a different vibe we have in this locker room, and it works. This year we’re on the same page. Shai, Chris, everybody’s sacrificing.»

The cohesion surely has helped the Thunder on the road, where they have won eight straight.

However, they’ve lost six of their last 10 at home, including the last two to Boston and San Antonio.

The Nuggets have won two straight on the road.

–Field Level Media