The Oklahoma City Thunder ascended thousands of feet to play the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night. The Thunder dominated all four quarters and fought off a run early in the second half to secure the 105-93 win.
The Nuggets shot just 39 percent in the first half, but a 10-3 edge in offensive rebounding helped them keep the deficit manageable. They cut the margin to a single point in the third quarter, but OKC forced them into jump shots and the Thunder's lead ballooned once again.
Oklahoma City (20-4) is a thundering freight train, having won 15 of the last 16 games. Meanwhile the Nuggets sink to 14-10 and have plenty of competition nipping at their heels for a playoff spot.
Player grades start at a C+ for a decent overall performance. That increases by a full letter grade for certain extraordinary accomplishments (30 points, 15 rebounds, notable defense, et al.) and decreases by the same margin for the less than ordinary (worse than 25 percent shooting, six turnovers, awful defense, et al.). We'll put role players on the grading curve.
Instead of gold stars and frowny faces, here are grades for every player.
Key Player Grades
Kevin Durant, Small Forward
Kevin Durant has been nothing short of excellent this season, averaging 28.5 points per game coming into the tussle with Denver. His shooting percentages have dipped slightly, but his rebounding is ticking up.
Durant couldn't quite catch up with Serge Ibaka's hot start from tipoff, but he still finished the first half with 14 points. Naturally, he zoomed past him in the second half as he hit 30 points for the 12th time on the season. He did it on 11-of-23 shooting and tacked on six rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals for good measure.
Speaking during a fourth-quarter studio look-in, retired player and NBA TV analyst Chris Webber dubbed Durant "Baby Ice." Dual replays showed an echo of the great George Gervin on one layup by KD, but he's no Iceman. He's the Durantula!
Russell Westbrook, Point Guard
Russell Westbrook turned in a sweet all-around first quarter with five points, six boards and four assists. I am astonished he didn't drive for the triple-double right then. He collected just four more assists in the game, but he displayed some unselfishness early in the game and nicely facilitated his teammates.
Westbrook was efficient with his scoring, getting 21 points on 9-of-16 shooting. His 13 boards are indicative of his hawkish instincts for the ball, but he wasn't the one boxing out for those.
However, Westbrook began holding the ball too long in the second half, and on several possessions he kept his dribble instead of passing and got stripped. Russ committed six turnovers in the second half, and thankfully they didn't come back to haunt him.
Serge Ibaka, Power Forward
Serge Ibaka stormed out of the gates and scored the first 11 points for OKC.
Nearing midway point of Q1: #Nuggets 11, Serge Ibaka 11.— Denver Nuggets (@denvernuggets) December 18, 2013
The Nuggets actually remembered to try to cover him on defense after that, so the points didn't come as freely, but Ibaka still finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. He had only one "Iblocka" to his credit, but I'm sure fantasy owners will forgive him.
That being said, the Nuggets came storming through the paint for easy buckets on several occasions, and Ibaka's skill as a help defender is not nearly equalled by his rim protection. The Thunder did a better job of collapsing the paint down the stretch, which helped preserve their lead.
Kendrick Perkins, Center
Kendrick Perkins technically started, but he played just 2:28 in the first half after picking up two quick fouls. Cult sensation Steven Adams replaced him.
Perk hit the only field goal he tried and ended up with three points and three boards. The big guy even dished an assist to go with his two turnovers. Other than that, he was nothing short of statuesque on both ends.
Thabo Sefolosha, Shooting Guard
After Denver pulled to 58-57, Thabo Sefolosha grabbed consecutive offensive rebounds and finished off the possession with a bucket. That kicked off an 11-1 run for OKC as the Nuggets went cold from the perimeter and got sloppy with the ball.
Sefolosha's lone score on a 1-of-4 evening came solely from his own hustle and determination, and it gifted the Thunder some key momentum. He played his typical grinding defense and tallied a steal and a block, but those offensive boards loomed large when the game was up for grabs.
Reggie Jackson, Point Guard
Reggie Jackson played 15 solid minutes in the first half with six points two assists and two steals. He added only one field goal to his stat sheet after that, but his all-around play continues to be worthy of more minutes.
Nick Collison, Power Forward
Nick Collison saw 11 first-half minutes with Perkins in foul trouble and he turned in a big game. In just shy of 21 minutes, Collison put up eight points, six boards, two blocks and a steal. His contributions in the first half especially helped hold down Denver.
Rest of Bench
The best part of Steven Adams' night was when Nuggets reserve Jordan Hamilton took a swing at him during the fourth quarter. Hamilton was ejected, and Adams looked as if he enjoyed the cool breeze from the weak flail. It was the closed fist that doomed Hamilton, even if it was aimed at Adams' armpit.
Jordan Hamilton appeared to take a swing at Steven Adams. Naturally, Adams completely ignored it.— Royce Young (@royceyoung) December 18, 2013
Adams played nine minutes and committed three fouls to go with one point and two boards.
Jeremy Lamb couldn't find his range from downtown, going 1-of-5, but he made his presence felt everywhere else on the court. He converted a pretty floater on one drive and stuffed the stat sheet in limited minutes.
Lamb shot 3-of-4 on two-pointers for nine points and grabbed six rebounds. He handed out three dimes and brought it on the defensive end as well with two steals and a block.
Derek Fisher is so old...no, I'm not going down that road. But retired NBAer and TV analyst Greg Anthony did. He took the opportunity for the jab when Fisher and Nuggets veteran Andre Miller did battle for a couple of minutes:
Watching Andre Miller battle @derekfisher in the post, man what experience...112 yrs combined!— Greg Anthony (@GregAnthony50) December 18, 2013
To his credit, D-Fish did knock down a three-pointer and pilfered a steal.
Head coach Scott Brooks continues to go deep with his 11-man rotation, and that means Perry Jones got some minutes. He played 6:24, missed a shot and snagged a steal. Even Andre Roberson got on the court, but he didn't do anything at all.
The Thunder get a night off before hosting the Chicago Bulls on Thursday, Dec. 19. Things get really serious when they visit the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday before returning home for the Toronto Raptors on Sunday.