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Two altercations with Russell Westbrook more than a year apart tell you all you need to know about these Nuggets

Harrison Wind Avatar
December 15, 2018

It was a meaningless preseason matchup, the fifth exhibition game and final tune-up for the 2017-18 regular season that was a week away. Denver and Oklahoma City’s starters would play maybe 20 minutes, get a quick sweat in, find their chemistry and get off the floor without any injuries.

Russell Westbrook had other plans that evening. On the Thunder’s third possession of the game, Westbrook shoulder checked Nikola Jokic in the chest, rocketing Denver’s big man back about 10 feet. Jokic’s teammates watched dead in their tracks as the Nuggets’ franchise player crumbled to the hardwood and stood almost in disbelief that Westbrook would perform such an act in a meaningless matchup. Jamal Murray glanced Westbrook’s way for a split-second before offering his hand to Jokic. The rest of his teammates barely looked Westbrook’s direction.

What a difference a year makes.

Westbrook tried to rook Denver again Saturday night. He tried to pull his same old shenanigans and childish antics on the Thunder’s top challenger for the Northwest Division crown. Westbrook wanted to get under Denver’s skin and send the same message to the upstart Nuggets that he did in that preseason matchup a year ago: that they’re still Oklahoma City’s little brother.

No dice.

Westbrook’s target this time around was Murray, who’s ruffled a few teams’ feathers already this season. Twenty seconds before Westbrook’s shove, Murray landed a blue arrow right between Steven Adams’ eyes when he sunk a 15-foot step-back over the big man’s outstretched arms, a similar shot to the one that sent Adams to the floor the last time these two teams faced off in Denver. Murray jogged back down court yelling, “It’s over!” towards his bench while bringing back the same two-handed gesture across his chest that his childhood hero Vince Carter made famous in the 2000 dunk contest.

When Westbrook’s two-handed shove landed squarely on Murray’s chest prior to a jump ball with 33.8 seconds remaining, his teammates sprang into action.

Nikola Jokic was the first to reach the dispute. “I just wanted to separate them,” he said. Jokic raced to Murray’s side and acted like a human barricade, separating Westbrook from his point guard. Words were exchanged from both sides, probably a few of which were spoken in Serbian. Westbrook didn’t like that one bit. Neither did Jokic’s older brothers, who shot Westbrook death stares from their respective locations inside the arena. Nemanja Jokic, who in October won his MMA debut via first-round TKO, looked especially menacing.

Juancho Hernangomez got to the center of the tussle at around the same time as Jokic.

“I’m going to protect my teammates,” he said. “ I’m going get Jamal and Joker’s backs every time I can.”

This was a regular season game — not an exhibition like in 2017. But how Jokic and Hernangomez stepped to Westbrook rather than to Murray tells you all you need to know about this version of the Denver Nuggets, how they play for each other and just how far they’ve come over the last year. Michael Malone has coached LeBron James-led teams in Cleveland and was in Golden State for the beginning of the Warriors’ rise to power in 2013. He admitted after Denver’s latest win that he’s never been around a group as connected as this one.

“The thing about our team is we’re not going to back down from anybody,” Malone said. “By no means are we the Bad Boys … but I think we have developed a confidence, we have developed a toughness and a resiliency. This is our home court. We had 31 wins here last year. We’re not going to let anybody come in here and push us around.”

Did you hear that, Russ?

You can’t rook the Denver Nuggets anymore. This is a team that’s so firmly tied at the hip to one another, they can lose three starters and have more than 50 percent of their payroll in street clothes at the end of the bench and still play like the best team in the Western Conference, which they’ve been this season. They’ve got each other’s backs now.

The undermanned Nuggets’ latest victim was the top-ranked defense in the league. Behind Jokic and his 24 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists, Denver put on one of its most impressive performances of the Malone era. The Nuggets got 19 points from Murray, 16 more from Hernangomez and 14 from Monte Morris off the bench in their 109-98 win.

Torrey Craig scored a career-high 15 points in 35 minutes, going from out of the rotation to Denver’s starting shooting guard with Gary Harris out. In two matchups with the Thunder this season, Craig has held Westbrook to 29 points on 11-38 shooting. Craig may be an unfamiliar name to some, but he’s firmly on Westbrook’s radar. So much so that Westbrook tried hard to recruit Craig to Oklahoma City last summer, according to multiple league sources. But Craig turned down the more lucrative offer in free agency to re-sign with the organization that took a chance on him with a Summer League invite in 2017 out of Australia and New Zealand’s National Basketball League.

Denver even got a contribution from Nick Young, who was signed off the street Monday. He sunk two threes, which sent Pepsi Center into a frenzy both times. In front of his locker around 30 minutes after the final buzzer sounded, Young said he had a new nickname too, marking his era in Denver: Swaggy Elvis.

A fitting title since these Nuggets are playing with the edge and moxie of rockstars.

Why did Westbrook choose to instigate this latest bruhaha in a game that was already decided?

Maybe his frustration finally boiled over after 36 minutes of going up against Craig. Maybe it was the vexation Westbrook felt from a season where the former MVP’s offensive numbers have slid substantially from where they were a year ago. Or maybe it’s because Westbrook finally felt what other playoff contenders already have this season: the Nuggets’ innate self-belief that’s powered Denver to the top of the conference.

“We go out there and win games, and we have fun doing it. We all stand up for each other. We all look out for each other,” Murray said. “We know we can beat anybody.”

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