With one quarter to go, the first 50-point game of Kevin Durant's career seemed within his grasp. That he chose not to force the issue meant he didn't reach that personal goal — but that decision did help the Oklahoma City Thunder win.
Durant, the NBA's scoring leader, had a season-high 44 points, including 21 in the third quarter, and the Thunder beat the Denver Nuggets 114-106 on Saturday night in the first Christmas Day game in the Thunder's three-season tenure in Oklahoma City.
Durant raised his average to 28.1 points and topped his previous season high of 34, blow past the latter by the five-minute mark of the third quarter en route to his first 40-point game of the season — after having eight of them last season. He finished 14 of 20 from the field, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range.
"He was on fire," Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. "He wasn't even hitting the rim."
With 40 points after three quarters, Durant admitted he was thinking not just of breaking his career high of 47 set Feb. 17, 2009, against New Orleans, but of reaching the 50-point mark.
The Nuggets made sure that didn't happen, routinely throwing two and three defenders at Durant during the fourth quarter. He didn't score in the quarter until the final 2 minutes, but with the Nuggets focused on him, his teammates found open shots and lanes to the basket and Durant helped make sure the ball found its way to them.
"I just didn't want to force anything or mess up the flow of the game," Durant said.
Oklahoma City extended a narrow lead to 10 at 96-86 with 8:45 left and the Nuggets came no closer than three the rest of the way. Consecutive 3-pointers by Durant and James Harden 30 seconds apart, the last with 1:11 left, sealed the win for the Thunder, 9-1 after a loss this season.
"Kevin was a special player tonight," Brooks said.
Denver played for the second straight game without star Carmelo Anthony following his sister's death Wednesday. Chauncey Billups led the Nuggets — who shot 52.9 percent from the field — with 30 points, and Nene had 21 points and 12 rebounds. Billups, who missed three games earlier this month because of a partially torn ligament in his right wrist, left the locker room Saturday night with ice on the wrist.
Denver led by 10 points in the first quarter. Behind Durant and Harden — who scored 21 points — the Thunder rallied to go up 54-51 late in the first half before the Nuggets closed on a 7-2 run to take a 58-56 lead.
Denver led 62-56 early in the third quarter before Durant took over offensively, making a pair of 3-pointers and three free throws after being fouled on another attempt, all in a 1:40 span. Another 3-pointer by Durant pulled the Thunder even at 76, then Durant assisted on Russell Westbrook's layup to put Oklahoma City ahead.
Westbrook, fouled on the play, gave a fist pump to rev up the sellout crowd of 18,203.
When Durant is in such a shooting zone, "We don't need anything else," Harden said. "Give him the ball and get out of the way."
Al Harrington put Denver back up 85-84 with a 3-pointer, but Durant — wearing special bright yellow shoes, as did all his teammates — answered with a basket and Harden's two free throws gave the Thunder an 88-85 lead going into the fourth quarter.
"We're just giving up too many points on the road," Denver coach George Karl said. "We're just trying to outscore people. Durant had a great game. He's a great player so he's going to have great games. We never really got a rhythm to how we were going to win the game."
Westbrook added 19 points for the Thunder.
Ty Lawson scored 19 points for Denver, while Kenyon Martin, in his second game back for the Nuggets after missing the first 26 because of a left knee injury, had 10.
NOTES: Thunder C Nenad Krstic returned to the starting lineup after missing seven games because of a lower back sprain. ... Karl said before the game he didn't expect Anthony to return for the Nuggets' home game Sunday against Philadelphia. ... Nuggets F Shelden Williams, who's from the Oklahoma City area, didn't play for the second straight game after starting Denver's first 26 games. ... The Thunder surprised 125 kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Oklahoma City with new bicycles and helmets during a halftime presentation.