Westbrook, thunder take aim at Nuggets defense (Jan 07, 2017)

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Thunder ended 2016 with one of their best and easiest wins of the year. In the New Years Eve game, they thrashed the L.A. Clippers to sprint into 2017 with high optimism.

Since then, the Thunder found a rough patch with losses in three straight games, all on the road. That includes a 118-116 nail biter to Houston Thursday.

Oklahoma City doesn’t seem to be extremely worried about the streak. Most likely because each of the defeats were close games down the stretch in the fourth quarter that they could have won.

“Oh yeah, we’re gonna be alright,” Victor Oladipo said to ESPN.com. “We’re gonna be just fine. We just got to keep getting better.”

The losing streak could have come to an end in Houston if Russell Westbrook had been able to connect on a 3-pointer he took over James Harden with five seconds left and the game tied at 116-116.

“I thought it was going to go in,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan told NBA.com. “It was right on line. He had his balance, he had his legs under him and it hit the back of the rim.”

On one hand, Donovan had every right to believe the shot was going in. Westbrook leads the NBA in clutch points with 138. No one else in the league has over a 100.

However, Westbrook is also 2 of 18 on go-ahead 3-pointers in the final 10 seconds during his career. That includes 0-for-6 this season. The latter will not stop Westbrook from attempting them.

The Thunder return home the Chesapeake Energy Arena to take on the Denver Nuggets on Saturday for the first of only three games in Oklahoma City month. It is also the perfect opportunity to end the three-game skid.

The Nuggets are also mired in a losing streak. Theirs is four games long and stretches back to Dec. 30.

In each of the last four defeats, Denver’s opponents scored at least 120 points. That includes 127 by both the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs.

The defensive struggles have been a focal point for Nuggets coach Michael Malone.

“We can’t be a team that just relies on their offense to pick up our defense,” Malone told The Denver Post. “We have to pick up our defense every night regardless of whether we’re making shots or not.”

If the Nuggets do not reign in their defense Saturday, they will find themselves trying to outscore Westbrook, who leads the league in scoring. But it’s his supporting cast on which Denver will need to focus.

When the two teams met Nov. 26 in Denver, Oklahoma City pulled out a 132-129 victory. While Westbrook had a triple double, five other players scored more than 10 points.

The Nuggets need to find a way to limit the rest of the Thunder while not letting Westbrook overwhelm them. It’s the type of challenge Malone is looking to see if his team will accept.

“In this league you can’t let go. You’ve got to bend, not break,” Malone told The Denver Post. “We have to get that fight back for four quarters for us to be a competitive team.”