DENVER — The Denver Nuggets feel as if they have some payback to deliver to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Payback for Russell Westbrook’s 36-foot dagger last April that eliminated the Nuggets from playoff contention. The shot gave the Thunder a 106-105 victory at the buzzer and put an exclamation point on his 42nd triple-double of the season, which set an NBA record.
Payback, too, for Westbrook’s flagrant-1 foul on Denver center Nikola Jokic during a preseason game four weeks ago.
The teams haven’t developed the animosity of the Denver Broncos-Oakland Raiders rivalry yet, but the seeds are there. But more important to the Nuggets is winning the last two games of their season-high, six-game homestand and finishing 5-1, and that effort starts Thursday against Oklahoma City.
“We set this goal to go 6-0,” Jokic said. “We’re not going to do that, but we have two games, left so we’re going to try to do our best to achieve something.”
Denver (6-5) might be catching the Thunder at the right time. Oklahoma City (4-6) has struggled in trying to fit forwards Paul George and Carmelo Anthony around Westbrook, the reigning MVP. All three are averaging 20.1 points, but inconsistency has been an issue, especially against Western Conference teams.
The Thunder are 0-5 against the West, and a loss to Denver would be the first time they started a season with six straight losses within the conference. Their frustration rose in a loss at Portland on Sunday night, and they were openly critical of the referees after the game.
The NBA fined Westbrook, George and coach Billy Donovan $15,000 apiece on Wednesday for their public criticism of the officiating.
Oklahoma City is coming off a 94-86 loss to the lowly Sacramento Kings on Tuesday, and afterward Westbrook vowed the Thunder would be better.
“I take ownership of how we’re playing, and I will be better,” he said after the loss to the Kings. “We will be better, so I’m not worried.”
Denver might be the place for Oklahoma City to start playing better. The Thunder have won five straight at Pepsi Center, dating back to Feb. 9, 2015. It is also a homecoming for Anthony, who played his first 7 1/2 seasons in Denver before being traded to the New York Knicks.
He has been back several times, so the newness of his return has worn off, but this time he is coming back as a Northwest Division rival.
Anthony was the franchise player from the moment Denver selected him with the third overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft. When he left, the model changed to a deeper team without a superstar. It worked for a couple of seasons but ended after the Nuggets won a franchise-record 57 games in 2012-13 but flamed out in the playoffs.
Now, however, there is a new young star — Jokic. He isn’t the prolific, consistent scorer Anthony was, but he is at least his equal on defense and he is a better rebounder and passer. He stuffs the box score, and he can put up points when needed, such as the career-high 41 he dropped in a 112-104 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday.
The future of the Nuggets meets the past, and Denver is happy with what it has.
“This guy can do it all,” coach Michael Malone said of Jokic.
Jokic also is starting to mesh with power forward Paul Millsap, who signed as a free agent over the summer.
“It’s always a getting-to-know process once you implement a new guy like myself into a system,” Millsap said after scoring 17 against the Nets. “We feel good about it. We feel more comfortable, I feel more comfortable.”
The Thunder are still working out the kinks with their three stars, and Thursday will be another chance for them to reach the same level as Jokic and Millsap. The Tuesday loss was just another step.
“It (stinks) to drop games like this,” George said after the defeat in Sacramento. “When we look back down the road in March and April and we look at these losses, we’ll be pretty sick about it. But this is not when we want to be playing our best basketball.”