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Five Observations: Nuggets' late-game struggles spoil Torrey Craig's big night

Christian Clark Avatar
December 19, 2017

The Denver Nuggets were in prime position to beat the division-rival Oklahoma City Thunder on the road Monday. But like we saw earlier this season in Indianapolis, the Nuggets went cold down the stretch and blew a winnable game. Here are five observations from the 95-94 loss.

1. Denver’s offense wilts in crunch time once again

Trey Lyles‘ alley-oop finish gave the Nuggets a four-point lead with 5:04 remaining. Denver was in an excellent position to knock off the Thunder, especially with the way Paul George and Carmelo Anthony were struggling. But from that point on, the Nuggets scored just two points.

In the final five minutes of play, the Nuggets shot 1-9 from the field and turned it over twice. They were forced to throw up low-percentage shots as their offense stalled. It was reminiscent of Denver’s Dec. 10 loss to the Indiana Pacers, when it shot 1-11 from the field and committed five turnovers in the final 7:54 of the game.

The Nuggets could’ve gone ahead when they got the ball back with 48.4 seconds remaining and the score knotted at 94, but the play Nuggets coach Michael Malone drew up busted. Jamal Murray threw up a wild three-point shot, which missed the mark.

Russell Westbrook put Oklahoma City ahead for good when he connected on 1-2 free throws with 2.3 seconds left.

2. Russell Westbrook was magnificent

Monday’s game served as a reminder: Westbrook is still one of the best players in the world. The Westbrook-George-Anthony experiment hasn’t gone well so far. Only five teams were less efficient on offense than the Thunder entering their matchup against the Nuggets. OKC’s offense looked underwhelming for much of the game against Denver, but it wasn’t Westbrook’s fault.

Westbrook was spectacular, especially in the fourth quarter when he scored 16 of his game-high 38 points. He made 16-28 shots, grabbed nine rebounds, threw out six assists and grabbed three steals. It felt like Torrey Craig did all he could to slow Westbrook, and he still finished with a bonkers line. Speaking of…

3. Torrey Craig, NBA player

Following Friday’s win over the Pelicans, Nuggets coach Michael Malone declared “that kid is an NBA player.” He was talking about Craig, the 26-year-old who was dominating the G League after spending several seasons developing his game in Australia.

Craig got his second NBA start against the Thunder, and he did not disappoint. He shot a perfect 5-5 from the field. He hit three threes and scored 14 points in 30 minutes. Craig guarded Westbrook from the opening whistle and did his best to slow the Thunder’s human hurricane.

It will be interesting to see what Denver does with Craig moving forward. Two-way players are allowed to spend a maximum of 45 days per season with the NBA team that signed them. If/when Craig hits the 45-day mark, the Nuggets must decide if they want to sign him to a guaranteed deal and clear a roster spot or let him spend the remainder of the season in the G League.

4. Will Barton throws up a dud

Three days after he dominated the overtime period against New Orleans, Will Barton never got going in Oklahoma City. Barton scored 11 of the Nuggets’ 13 points in the extra period against the Pelicans. On Monday, he scored six points total.

Barton’s shooting line was look-away ugly: 2-15 from the field, 0-8 from three-point range. In the fourth quarter, he missed all five of the shots he took, four of which were deep balls. Rather than letting him close, Malone subbed him out with 4:04 remaining when it became clear he wasn’t going to get into a rhythm.

5. Trey Lyles continues to cook

The more we see Trey Lyles, the better he looks. He came off the bench and poured in 15 points in 25 minutes. He went 3-6 from three-point land and sprinkled in some nice drives and finishes at the rim.

Lyles has taken 59 three-pointers this season. He’s sunk 29 of them — a 49.2 percent average.

The 22-year-old is averaging 17.6 points on a scorching 64 percent shooting in his last five games. Here’s his shot chart dating back to Dec. 10.

Lyles’ ability to knock down the outside shot and put the ball on the floor and finish inside makes him an intriguing stretch four.

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