DENVER — It may have been the Denver Nuggets’ last home game of the regular season, but the near capacity crowd that filled the stands at Pepsi Center didn’t just come out to see the Nuggets. They came to see history. With 4:13 left to play in the game, they got it.
MVP favorite Russell Westbrook came into Sunday’s game a single triple double shy of breaking Oscar Robertson’s five-decade old record for the most in a season. He piled up stats throughout the night, eventually needing a sole assist to break it.
He got it on an outlet pass to set up a catch-and-shoot opportunity for Victor Olidapo, who nailed a three-pointer to close in on the lead Denver had built in the game and cement Westbrook’s MVP case.
“He’s had one hell of a season,” guard Gary Harris said. “I think he might have just locked up the MVP with that one right there.”
Pepsi Center erupted as 18,000-plus witnesses to history celebrated the achievement. However, there was still basketball to be played and Westbrook had more magic up his sleeve.
The Nuggets, after all, were still fighting for their lives in the race for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Down 1.5 games down to Portland in the playoff hunt. Denver needed to win all of their remaining games and have Portland lose their last two games in order to sneak in.
At times throughout this game, the Nuggets seemed intent on finding their way to a win. The Nuggets had built an 14-point lead at one point in the fourth quarter. With a minutes to play, their lead was eight. However, as has been the case with the Nuggets all season, this young Denver team couldn’t find a way to close out a tough win.
In the waning moments of the game, Denver held a four-point advantage with 29.8-seconds to play. Nikola Jokic—the rising star who cemented himself as the building block of the Nuggets’ future—drew a questionable flagrant foul late that gave Westbrook the chance to shoot free throws that pulled the game to within a single bucket.
With their season in the balance, the Nuggets would have to rely on their defense to make a play and hold onto their playoff hopes. That defense, of course, happens to be the worst in the NBA.
The clock showed 2.9 ticks remaining as the Thunder got set to inbound the ball to Westbrook. The defense swarmed, forcing him to take a more 30-foot three point prayer to try and win the game.
Somehow, someway, it went in.
“He hit the game winner,” Harris said bluntly. “We lost.”
The shot ended the Nuggets’ playoff hopes, locked the Portland Trailblazers into the No. 8 seed, and gave Westbrook a 50-point game.
“I’m so thankful to be able to play the game I love every night,” Westbrook said. “It’s amazing. It’s nothing I could ever dream about as a kid. I’m just very blessed.”
The most promising, enjoyable, and at times frustrating Nuggets season since 2013 ended in a way befitting of the type of year it’s been for this team.
“As many plays as (Westbrook) made down the stretch, I truly feel that we lost this game,” head coach Michael Malone said. “Everything that could go wrong went wrong…that’s been an issue for us all year.”
Moving forward, this team is going to have to answer plenty of questions.
“We’re the worst defensive team in the NBA,” Malone said. “We have to add a defensive minded player, in my opinion.”
However, tonight the focus was on this loss. The focus was on this pain.
“We knew we needed that win,” Harris said. “For it to end like that, it kind of sucks.”
The Nuggets have two games left to play on the road in Dallas and then one more rematch against these Thunder in Oklahoma City. The Nuggets could get to 40 wins on the season, far surpassing the total the Vegas wise guys had slotted for this young group. That is just one of the several takeaways from this season that can give Nuggets’ fans hope. The league hasn’t heard the last of Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and company.
“That was a really tough loss,” Malone said. “But, I know when I do take a step back and you look at all the positives, all the improvement, all the growth, this is definitely a season that we can feel good about. We’re definitely headed in the right direction.”