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Preview: Denver Nuggets vs. Houston Rockets

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The Nuggets, coming off a thrilling overtime win over the Timberwolves, face the dangerous and improving Rockets

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets host the surging Houston Rockets on Monday night, in a tale of two teams headed in opposite directions this season.  Neither has had much continuity, but the Rockets fired head coach Kevin McHale shortly after losing to Denver for the second time early in the season, and have been working their way back to .500 ever since.  Their 126-97 pasting of the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday night finally brought them back to even for the season.

The Nuggets have been looking for a rhythm all season, but a swath of injuries has made that nearly impossible.  That streak continued Friday night, as the Nuggets won a thrilling, comeback overtime game against the Minnesota Timberwolves but lost Emmanuel Mudiay to an aggravated ankle sprain in the first quarter.  Nevertheless, the Nuggets soldier on, this time facing a team that remembers very well the Opening Night defeat they were handed by Denver down in Houston as well as the rematch in the Mile High City that was also won by the Nuggets.

The Basics

Who: Houston Rockets (12-12) at Denver Nuggets (9-14)
When: 7:00 PM MT
Where: Pepsi Center, Denver CO
Where to watch: Altitude
Rival Blog:
The Dream Shake

Houston Rockets Denver Nuggets Advantage
PG Patrick Beverley Jameer Nelson Rockets
SG James Harden Gary Harris Rockets
SF Trevor Ariza Danilo Gallinari Nuggets
PF Terrence Jones Kenneth Faried Even
C Dwight Howard Joffrey Lauvergne Rockets
Bench Clint Capela, Donatas MotiejunasCorey Brewer
Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Thornton, Ty Lawson
J.J. Hickson, Darrell Arthur,
Will BartonNikola JokicRandy Foye
Rockets

Injured players: Wilson Chandler, hip (out), Jusuf Nurkic, knee (out), Emmanuel Mudiay, ankle (out), Darrell Arthur, knee (probable), Ariza, back (probable)

Three Thoughts:


1) The bench will have to contribute, even short-handed. The Rockets bench has averaged nearly 40 points a game over the last 9 outings, which has kicked the Rockets over 100 points in each of those games.  The Nuggets have not won a game this year in which they scored fewer than 100, so that streak will likely stay intact.  To win, they'll need to cross the triple-digit mark, and for that to happen the bench will have to contribute mightily, even short-handed. With Jameer Nelson moved to the starting lineup to replaced the injured Mudiay that leaves Randy Foye in charge of the backup PG role, a role that has ill-suited him on several occasions this year.  He will have to be a better facilitator and the bench bigs will have to pull their weight, especially Jokic.  Terrence Jones went off for 23 in the last matchup between these teams - that sort of thing can't happen this time.  It can't just be the Barton Show from the bench if the Nuggets have designs on winning this game.

2) The rematch of Harden vs. Harris will be interesting. Gary Harris didn't do it all by himself, but he was a major contributor to Denver's Opening Night victory in Houston, in which Harden was held to 22 points on 21 shots.  Harden came back to Denver and put up 28 points but the Nuggets outlasted Houston in that one as well.  Since then, Harden has recovered much of his mojo while Harris has missed time with a concussion.  Denver only has a couple of defenders capable of slowing Harden's assault on the basket - Harris and Barton - and both guards will need to be able to both score and defend to keep Denver in this game.  That also means they can't afford to pick up the sorts of early fouls that Harden can cause on his bowling-ball trips into the paint.  It will have to be smart defense by Harris so that he can stay on the court and keep taking the fight to Houston.  Too much of Foye or Nelson on Harden will be a bad omen for the night.

3) Gallinari needs to keep his streak going. Danilo was a huge part of the first two wins against the Rockets, putting up 23 points in the first meeting and 27 in the second.  Houston has not been able to slow the Rooster, and the Nuggets need him to score from the free throw line and from deep.  With Mudiay out he'll also need to be a willing passer and conduit of the offense - sometimes the hero-ball mentality takes over a bit too much.  On the other hand, he single-handedly won the overtime against Minnesota with his brash, fearless shot-making - sometimes the Nuggets need a hero.  What they really need is 4 quarters from Gallo to pull this one out.

Prediction: Houston 104, Denver 95. But since the Nuggets need the Rockets to make the playoffs in order to get Houston's first round draftpick this year for the Ty Lawson trade, even in defeat there can be silver linings.

I'd rather see the victory, though.  Call me short-sighted.