The last time Denver hosted the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Nuggets were riding a six-game winning streak and it was assumed they would make it seven against a shorthanded Thunder team that was playing for next season.
The Thunder had other ideas, beating Denver 119-107 on March 2 in what turned out to be their last win until they beat Orlando this week.
Oklahoma City had lost 10 straight before Wednesday night’s 118-102 win at home and can make it two straight for the first time in more than six weeks Saturday night when the Thunder (21-52) visit the Nuggets (43-31).
The Thunder beat the Magic with only nine available players, with one of those sitting being star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who torched Denver for 29 points in the March 2 triumph.
Oklahoma City beat Orlando with role players leading the way, with Theo Maledon standing out. Maledon scored a career-high 25 points, just the seventh time he has scored in double figures this season, and impressed his coach.
“I just respect the guy’s work ethic and his professionalism,” Thunder coach Mark Daigneault said. “His solution is always more work and putting his head down. Any time somebody’s that committed and is willing to persevere and plow through adversity with work ethic, I respect that.”
Gilgeous-Alexander sat out against the Magic with right ankle soreness but should be available Saturday night. He has missed just two games since the All-Star break.
OKC won’t get a complacent Nuggets team on Saturday night. Denver has been scuffling lately, losing three of its last four, most recently falling at home Thursday night against Phoenix. The Nuggets are battling to stay ahead of the play-in bracket in the Western Conference.
If they put together a winning streak they could move to as high as fourth in the conference, but any stumbles could allow Minnesota to pass them for sixth, dropping Denver into the play-in bracket among the 7th-10th teams.
Denver has struggled to find a consistent scorer after Nikola Jokic. At times it has been Aaron Gordon or Will Barton, and Bones Hyland has shown flashes of offense off the bench. Hyland had 19 points in the first half against the Suns, finishing with 23.
Turnovers have also plagued the Nuggets. They had 16 against Phoenix, which created 30 points for the Suns.
“The turnovers … against the best team in the NBA,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “You can’t beat yourself and them at the same time, it’s just impossible.”
With the Thunder and Nuggets splitting games in Oklahoma City earlier in the season, leveling the season series is vital for Denver. The Nuggets have eight games left to make a move in the Western Conference. After Saturday’s game Denver plays four at home and three on the road.
It is unlikely the Nuggets will bring back Jamal Murray (ACL repair) or Michael Porter Jr. (back surgery) before the end of the season. Neither is practicing, although they are both ramping up their basketball activities.