With Dwight Howard sitting due to a sore ankle, it seemed like tonight would be a great opportunity for the Nuggets to snap their 5 game road losing streak in Houston. It even started out that way, as the Nuggets led the sluggish Rockets by 5 points at the end of the first quarter, 27-22.
Then the second quarter happened, and the wheels started coming off. With Ty Lawson out due to an ankle injury suffered in the team's most recent loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, the Nuggets were forced to rely on heavy minutes from Aaron Brooks, Randy Foye and Evan Fournier. Once Brooks and Foye started to grow fatigued, it didn't go well.
The Rockets scored a season-high 47 points in the second quarter off a bevy of Nuggets turnovers and poor transition defense, as the Nuggets allow 23 fast break points and 25 trips to the line. What was once a 10 point lead quickly turned into a 17 point deficit at the half. It seemed like the Nuggets were ready to give in and let another injury to Ty Lawson give them all the excuse they needed to turn the game into a blowout in Texas.
Even with that narrative all queued up in my mind, the Nuggets didn't let an awful second quarter get them down. Brian Shaw and the coaching staff must have lit into the lackluster second quarter effort, as the Nuggets came out on fire and ended up outscoring the Rockets 36-19 in the third. The whole team seemed to be amped up and Brooks play especially brought the Nuggets back from the dead. The Nuggets effort in the second half was phenomenal - including a much better effort from Quincy Miller. Brooks had the ball on a yo-yo throughout the final two frames, dishing the ball and nailing some long threes that must have given a number of Rockets fans regret over trading him (Jordan Hamilton didn't see the floor tonight). Evan Fournier started hitting long shots, and Jan Vesely did his best impression of a brick wall, taking multiple charges from Jeremy Lin late in the fourth quarter.
After holding a big lead late in the fourth, 114 to 101, the Nuggets started to struggle in crunch time. They tightened up under some serious defensive pressure from the Rockets, who forced the Nuggets into overtime. They tried hard, but succumbed without their veteran guard Ty Lawson to help lead the team in the last few minutes of the game. Digging out of a 17 point mineshaft to begin with sapped an already short rotation of the little energy they had left late, and overtime let the Rockets capitalize on a fired up Rockets home crowd. The Nuggets playing "prevent defense" doomed them, and it was disconcerting to see Shaw watch the team slow down and do little to help them keep up the pace. Watching Faried on Harden for multiple possessions made me want to stick my thumbs in my eyes. That can't happen, Shaw!
Even with nothing to play for, I'm ultimately heartened by the fact that the Nuggets have played hard and shown a lot of grit and determination of late, no matter whom their opponent. They've fought for pride and scrapped and clawed even when they're down 6 rotation players. We've gotten to see some intriguing things in this "extended training camp" (as Kenneth Faried has termed it) - Darrell Arthur and Timofey Mozgov developing something of a three point range, Quincy Miller growing into a defensive presence around the rim, and Aaron Brooks raising eyebrows as a potential backup point guard going forward. Kenneth Faried has shown a lot of improvement on defense, blocking shots and even managing to stop a 3 pointer from James Harden with a technical foul! Good things, all.
Nuggets of Gold
Aaron Brooks continues to impress with his play. He's been a phenomenal point guard after shedding his red and whites for blue and gold, surely giving the Nuggets front office something to think about heading into the offseason. Even though his short stature creates some troubling questions about the Nuggets ability to play against larger backcourts, his speed and shooting ability have been an ideal fit in difficult circumstances. One has to wonder how Brooks would fare alongside Gallinari, McGee, and Hickson going forward. That 24-15-8 line is an eye-opener, even in a loss.
Even though I've been down on Evan Fournier and Quincy Miller of late, they both had excellent second halves and helped this team with fantastic shooting from deep (9-15 combined). Fournier struggled early with extra ball-handling duty, but managed to mostly settle down and keep the Nuggets from imploding. Miller especially has been a defensive force, utilizing his length in the paint to influence shots and keeping the Rockets from getting easy looks.
Faried is showing why I've been an advocate for keeping him all along. He's a double double machine when given the minutes, has started to improve his free throw shooting, and has even displayed some improvement on the defensive end. Tonight was no different as he chalked up another double double, displaying his usual fierce effort and a developing offensive game. If Tim Connelly and Josh Kroenke are smart, Faried will be in a Nuggets uniform for a long time to come.
Lumps of Coal
Even though he's had some enormous games, Timofey Mozgov's inconsistency has been disappointing. He's had completely dominant efforts and efforts like tonight where he was largely outplayed by Omer Asik and Terrence Jones. I know he would normally be playing behind JaVale Mcgee, but I was hoping to see him take the step to the next level and challenge McGee for a starting role next year. As it stands, I think the Nuggets have to continue to look at McGee as the starter going forward.
Anthony Randolph continues to make me shake my head. He's had chances all over the NBA and hasn't shown any development. The guy tries hard, much like Jan Vesely, but shows zero basketball awareness and any real ability to impact the game outside of using his length - when he's in position - to influence shots on defense. The short jumper he showed some ability to hit last year has disappeared almost entirely. He was a good prospect and potential reclamation project, but has shown that he ultimately isn't worthy of the roster spot he takes up on this team. I'd rather the Nuggets use it on a draft pick.
As much as I have enjoyed Randy Foye's leadership in the times that the Nuggets have been without their veterans, he has shown a lot of wear and tear in the extended minutes he's played this year. He missed a crucial free throw which allowed the Rockets to take the game to overtime and eventually win it. Foye is a decent spot up shooter, but asking him to do too much is a recipe for disaster.
This has been without a doubt one of the hardest years to write about the Nuggets, without even considering how hard it has been as a fan. Injury after injury, loss after loss and the first year in a decade in which the Nuggets will not be in the postseason has been mentally draining. Where in years past we've had the hope of an incredible, Rocktober-esque run to carry the Nuggets into the NBA Finals, there has been no such hope this year. At least the Hawks won and the Knicks lost, helping increase the hopes for the Nuggets scoring a higher draft pick in the lottery.
As we head into the offseason, Bob Dylan's stanza from "The Times, They Are A Changin'" resonates with me in my final recap of the 2013-2014 season. It was impossible to predict the level of hardship and injuries this team faced over the course of this season. Even as the Nuggets have fallen on hard times, however, I can be heartened by knowing that the 2014-2015 season will be another spin of the wheel. We've been joined by four excellent new writers who continue to prove that Denver Stiffs is the best sports blog on SBnation, and I commend Mike Olson, Quinn Glasnapp, Danny Neubert, Loren Knaster and sensemaking for stepping up to help Andy, Nate, Jeff and I cover a difficult year.
Let me prophesize with my proverbial pen that with an offseason filled with recovery of the Nuggets' injured, a high draft pick, and an extraordinarily challenging year of NBA coaching experience for a now-seasoned head coach Brian Shaw, the wheel's going to have a much better chance of naming the Nuggets next year.
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who that it's namin'
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times, they are a-changin'