First-place Nuggets may get Young vs. Thunder

The Denver Nuggets woke up Thursday morning in a spot no one expected them to be in at any point of the season — atop the Western Conference standings.

They’ll have to bring their best Friday night if they want to stay there.

Denver (18-9) was percentage points ahead of Golden State and a half-game up on Oklahoma City entering Thursday’s schedule. The Thunder (17-9) have a chance to change the picture when they play at Denver on Friday night.

Oklahoma City would be the team in first place had it been able to beat New Orleans on the road Wednesday night. The Thunder shot 48.3 percent overall but was 13 of 43 from 3-point range in the Pelicans’ 118-114 victory.

“We really moved the ball well, and they really collapsed the paint…” Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan told reporters after the game. “This really left us with a lot of good quality 3-point shots, and we didn’t make those at a high enough level.”

Making 3-pointers against Denver will be a challenge, too. The Nuggets, who were last in the NBA in 3-point defense in 2017-18, are second this year. Improving the perimeter defense was a focus in training camp and it has paid off.

Denver has been able to maintain its defense despite missing two of its top players on that end of the floor. Guard Gary Harris, the team’s best perimeter defender, has missed five games with a hip injury that should keep him out most of December, and forward Paul Millsap is out 4-to-6 weeks with a broken big toe suffered at Charlotte on Dec. 7. Millsap is one of the team’s most versatile defenders.

Without them, and the absence of forward Will Barton, who has been sidelined since the second game of the season, the Nuggets are missing three starters from opening night.

The emergence of Juancho Hernangomez (9.9 points a game) and solid play by Torrey Craig has allowed Denver to keep winning. The front office added a reinforcement with the signing of guard Nick Young this week.

Young was added by the injury hardship relief exception. He said he was working out on his own in Los Angeles after he wasn’t retained by Golden State.

“It’s humbling being at home just chilling, watching TV, playing with the kids,” Young, 33, told reporters earlier this week. “I missed it a little bit.”

He didn’t play in the win over Memphis on Monday but could get in against Oklahoma City. The Thunder will be motivated after Denver won on their court last month, and coming off the loss to the Pelicans when Alex Abrines missed a potential winner from 3-point range in the final seconds.

Guard Russell Westbrook (20 points Wednesday) and forward Paul George (25 points, 11 rebounds) will test the Denver defense, and the 6-foot-7 Young could help against those stars. He can also pose problems for opposing defenses.

“He’s here for a reason,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone told reporters earlier this week. “Obviously, we’re banged up … When you’re in the middle of December there’s not a long list of available guys that can come in and help. Teams have to game plan for Nick Young. He’s a threat off the bench.”