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Regular Season Game No. 16 | Oklahoma City Thunder (8-8) @ Denver Nuggets (6-9)
Pepsi Center, Denver, Colorado | 7:00 PM MST | TV: Altitude
Losers of three straight, the Oklahoma City Thunder roll into Denver Friday to face a banged up Nuggets team looking to bounce back after a rough performance Wednesday in Utah.
Here’s what to watch for:
You’re not going to stop Russell Westbrook, especially with the injuries up and down the Nuggets’ roster. What Michael Malone will try to do Friday night is, as most coaches have tried and failed to do this season, limit Westbrook.
“16 years in the league, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a player like him,” Malone said at shootaround Friday morning of Westbrook. “His strength, his size, his athleticism, his explosiveness, his attack mindset, just a phenomenal player.”
Westbrook comes into tonight’s matchup averaging a career-high and league-leading 31.8 points per game and has the highest usage percentage in the league, using 40.4 percent of the Thunder’s offensive possessions.
“He plays like someone pissed in his cheerios every morning,” Malone continued.
To limit Westbrook, Malone will deploy Alonzo Gee, who Denver signed to a free agent contract back on November 16, just ten games into the season due to their lack of depth on the wing and the Nuggets believe the defensive-minded wing is their best chance to limit Westbrook.
“We’ll throw different guys at Westbrook,” Malone said. “I think Alonzo Gee’s a guy who could potentially be our best matchup on Westbrook because of his size, physicality and his athleticism.”
As far as the Thunder as a team, Oklahoma City comes at you from all angles. The Thunder average 17.6 fast break points per game, the second-best mark league-wide.
“Limit them in the fast break,” Malone said as to where he’s focusing his defensive efforts. “Our offense has to come from our defense, quality shots, great execution, limit turnovers.”
Arthur to see an increased role
Malone has struggled to find a spot for Darrell Arthur in Denver’s rotation since the power forward got healthy after undergoing knee surgery prior to training camp and subsequently missed all of preseason. Arthur has appeared in just three games this season but played 16 minutes against Utah, the most minutes he’s seen all year.
“You trust him out there. You know he’s going to give you game-plan discipline, physicality, toughness, defense,” Malone said of Arthur. “On offense, he plays with great pace, he moves the ball and if he’s open, he’ll step in and shoot the ball with confidence.”
With the injuries up and down Denver’s roster, Arthur is in for more minutes and an increased role off the bench Friday versus Oklahoma City. He has been working his way back into shape but hasn’t been able to practice a whole lot with the Nuggets’ recent schedule. Malone says that Arthur doesn’t quite have his “game wind” back yet, but he’s close.
“We need all hands on deck right now,” Malone said. “DA’s a guy I relied on a lot last year. If you go back to our game against Golden State when we beat them at home, I was closing games with DA as our five-man, and I trust him out there.”
Juancho Hernangomez will not play Friday against the Thunder. The rookie sprained his ankle in the closing minute of Wednesday’s game in Utah and the ankle “blew up right away,” per Malone. He’d love to try and play tonight, but the Nuggets will hold him out.
Danilo Gallinari will sit out Friday’s game as well with a sore right thigh.