OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) – Russell Westbrook’s co-stars stepped back, and the reigning MVP stepped forward to deliver a winning performance.
Westbrook scored 16 of his season-high 38 points in the fourth quarter, including the tiebreaking free throw with 2.3 seconds left, to lift the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 95-94 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Monday night.
Oklahoma City survived, despite just eight points from Paul George and four from Carmelo Anthony. Westbrook carried the load by making 16 of 28 shots.
“For anybody, if any one of us has the hot hand, you’ve got to keep going,” George said. “Russ definitely had the hot hand. We were fine with him taking the game over. He had the hot hand and was confident with shots and he was getting great looks. You can’t really be mad about that, the looks that he got. He got wide-open looks and layups. We’re living on his back tonight.”
Westbrook drove hard to the basket in the closing seconds and was fouled on a shot close to the hoop. He made the first of two free throws to put the Thunder ahead. He missed the second, and the Nuggets called timeout with 1.7 seconds left. Denver’s Gary Harris missed short on an off-balance 3-pointer as time expired.
Westbrook also had nine rebounds and six assists for the Thunder, who have won seven of 10 to even their record at 15-15.
“He was playing,” Anthony said. “He was being aggressive, playing downhill. His shot was falling tonight. He led us tonight. He led us to this victory, especially offensively. He put the team on his back tonight offensively and defensively, we came together as a unit and won the game.”
Harris scored 17 points, Trey Lyles had 15 and Torrey Craig added a career-high 14 for the Nuggets, who led by 10 points early in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t need to wait for the last shot to win the game,” Denver center Nikola Jokic said. “I think could have won with like three minutes to go, because we had the lead. We just needed to push a little bit … it’s no one’s fault, but I just think we had an opportunity to finish the game earlier.”
Oklahoma City led 52-44 at the break. The Thunder, who often have struggled in the third quarter, did so again at the start of this one. Denver rallied to tie the game at 54 in the opening minutes. The Nuggets took the lead on a layup by Wilson Chandler and followed with a 3-pointer by Craig that rattled in.
The Thunder rallied with an 8-0 run that included two 3-pointers by Alex Abrines, but Denver bounced back to take a 76-70 lead into the fourth.
Westbrook re-entered the game in the fourth quarter after a rest and went to work. His layup tied the game at 94 with just under two minutes remaining to set up the finish.
“I was proud of the fact that we came out third quarter and played phenomenal,” Denver coach Michael Malone said. “And then they turned up in that fourth quarter. Westbrook took over the game. Came up a little bit short against a tough division opponent.”
Nuggets: Did not score for the first 2:58. … G Emmanuel Mudiay sat out with a sprained right ankle. … Denver is 11-2 at home and 5-12 on the road. … Starters scored just 25 points in the first half. … Craig, a two-way player, got his second straight start.
Thunder: C Steven Adams missed his second straight game while waiting through concussion protocol. … Shot 65 percent in the first quarter to take a 32-18 lead. … Made 10 of 15 free throws.
Thunder C Dakari Johnson, who got his fifth start of the season in Adams’ place, scored eight points on 4-of-4 shooting.
Oklahoma City struggled to win close games at the start of the season, but its past seven wins have all been by six or fewer points, and by a combined total of 22 points.
Nuggets: Host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.
Thunder: Host the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.
By CLIFF BRUNT, AP Sports Writer
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