Nuggets face must-win scenario vs. Thunder
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OKLAHOMA CITY -- Two teams in desperate need of a win meet Friday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder (44-32), the desperation is about hanging on to playoff positioning during a rough stretch of the schedule after losing two consecutive games to drop into a tie for fourth in the Western Conference.
For the Denver Nuggets (41-35), the situation is far more severe.
The Nuggets are two games behind Utah for the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference with only seven games remaining.
Denver is trying to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013 without second-leading scorer Gary Harris to help.
Harris will miss his seventh consecutive game with a right knee injury.
Without Harris, who is averaging 17.7 points and shooting 48.6 percent from the floor, the Nuggets' offense has stagnated. During his absence, Denver is averaging 115.3 points but is shooting 41 percent in the second half.
"(We need to) just get back focused, get back to having fun, get back to moving the ball and sharing it," guard Jamal Murray told the Denver Post. "We're not trusting each other with the ball. We've got to keep that thing flying and make the extra pass."
Although Will Barton, who has replaced Harris in the starting lineup, is averaging 17.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.0 assists during his time in the starting lineup -- numbers similar to Harris -- Denver's efficiency has taken a hit on both ends of the floor.
The inefficiency helped lead to Denver going 2-4 on the current road trip to fall perilously close to dropping out of the playoff race entirely heading into the final two weeks of the season.
In consecutive losses in Philadelphia and Toronto, the Nuggets have been outscored by a combined 128-97 after halftime.
The good news for Denver is that the schedule eases up a bit after the trip to Oklahoma City, with four of the Nuggets' final six games at home.
The Thunder missed a chance to solidify their playoff position Thursday night in San Antonio by being outscored by eight points in the fourth quarter in a 103-99 loss.
So, heading into a stretch that includes road games at New Orleans, Houston and Miami and a home game against Golden State, the Thunder is in close to must-win territory, especially given the way the playoffs figure to line up.
Falling to the sixth spot would likely put Oklahoma City against Portland in the first round. The Trail Blazers won all four of the teams' 'meetings this season. An opening-round series against San Antonio, New Orleans or Minnesota could be much more manageable for the Thunder.
When Oklahoma City has been successful recently, it's been largely because of Russell Westbrook's strong play as Paul George and Carmelo Anthony have struggled of late.
But Thursday night, it was Westbrook who struggled in the closing minutes, Westbrook couldn't lift the Thunder.
Westbrook was 2 for 8 from the field with a pair of turnovers in the fourth quarter. Among his missed was a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left that would've tied it.
Still, there's little doubt that if Friday night's game is tight, Westbrook will be asked to shoulder the load again.
"I've always admired the fact that he doesn't shy away from that," Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan said. "That makes him who he is as a player. And more often than not, you're not gonna make as many game-winning shots as you're gonna miss. I don't think anybody does that."
Updated March 30, 2018