The Denver Nuggets rode the roller-coaster tonight, opening with a 36-point first quarter, then watching the Rockets put up 36 in the second to take the halftime lead. The Nuggets came back on the strength of Gary Harris's career-high 21 points, but it was a team effort. They had 6 players in double-figures and doubled up the Rockets on the boards with a 52-to-26 advantage. All those rebounds were crucial because the Rockets hit 18 3-pointers, a season-high, but couldn't quite do enough to offset Denver's 62 points in the paint. James Harden had 24 points on 20 shots and Donatas Motiejunas netted 19 to pace Houston in a losing cause, 114-108.
The Nuggets came out of the gate exchanging great plays with poor ones, offsetting every nice bucket with a turnover. Lauvergne scored the first 6 points of the game for the Nuggets, then subbed out for Jokic who added a couple of baskets of his own. The ball movement was great, with Gary Harris in particular cutting to the hoop behind the defense for easy layups. Their defense in the period was active with 5 steals. The Nuggets racked up 10 assists on 15 made buckets in the quarter and by the end racked up a season-high in any quarter of 36, leading by 14.
Foye opened the second quarter as the point guard and the Rockets started off with better defensive pressure on the ball immediately. A couple of Foye turnovers and some Houston threes closed the lead to six at 38-32 after an extended 17-2 run. Mike Miller nailed a corner three to slow the run once Jameer got back in the game and then a HUGE one-handed jam by Barton (and the one that graces the front of this article) puts the Nuggets back up by 9. Nuggets turnovers and outside shot inefficiency cost them dearly in the quarter, and the Rockets' three-point shooting and lack of turnovers took them evened it up at 50-50. Faried's energy kept the Nuggets in it with a 9 point, 9 rebound first half, but 10 made threes from Houston and not enough ball movement and cutting in the second quarter doomed them to trail the Rockets at halftime 58-54.
Denver's bigs started the third rolling to the basket, but the Rockets kept firing from 3 and hitting, driving their early second half lead to 10. The Nuggets hung around that 8-10 point range by parading to the foul line, and got both Howard and Motiejunas in foul trouble to boot. Barton hit two freee throws, then a steal and a fast-break bucket for Harris after a goaltend cut it to 4, 77-73. The Nuggets pressed the attack again with foul shots and a 3 from Harris and tied it at 80. Threes from Nelson and Barton and then a layup by Jameer capped a 15-0 run and an 88-80 lead for Denver. Jokic almost snagged a steal and Howard yelled at Lawson about a series of communication errors. It was another sad homecoming for Lawson who finished with a Foye-like two points in 13 minutes. Harden's shot was blocked by Papanikolaou to end the period with Denver up 88-82.
Foye started the fourth quarter at point guard again, flubbing a pass and a 3 but Harris slashed to the basket for another bucket and Barton hit both a three and a put-back slam. Motiejunas kept carving up the Nuggets defense, leading Malone to bench Faried for the remainder of the game in a matchup decision, but otherwise the hustle was there and the paint points rolled on. The fastbreak was unstoppable amongst the bench players, especially after hustle steals. Papanikolaou hit a 3 to take the lead to 106-90 with 6 minutes to go. The Nuggets were up by 15 when Barton threw Ariza's shoe out of bounds and got a technical as tempers flared among both teams. Out of the timeout the starters re-took the court cold, and it showed. Ariza hit a lucky two, Denver turned the ball over and Houston nailed a three to cut the lead to single digits. Both teams started to wear down but only Denver lost its shooting touch and gumption. The Nuggets misplaced their offense by walking it up afraid to lose. Houston closed to 110-108 with an 18-4 run, but Terry missed an open 3 with 14 seconds remaining. Barton hit both free throws, Jokic iced the game with two more and the Nuggets escaped with the win 114-108 after a Dwight Howard three bounced harmlessly off at the buzzer.
That's how you play, Denver. Take your cue from Barton:
Pace. Every time the tempo increased, the Nuggets rose to the challenge. When it was a perimeter slog they struggled. Sometimes they created their own pace with slashes to the bucket and passes, and sometimes they did what Malone has talked about all season, fast breaking off turnovers and rebounds. The Nuggets RAN again, for what feels like the first time in a long time. It led to a season-high in points in the paint and wore Houston out enough that they finally missed a few shots. Denver almost lost the game by getting scared at the end and walking it up trying to play the possession game against a dangerous scoring team. Denver's streak of winning only games in which they break a hundred points continues, and that needs to be a sign to everyone on the team. This Nuggets team cannot grind out victories, they have to run them out. It doesn't need to be helter-skelter, but running with a purpose (as Michael Malone would say) is an absolute must for this team. That even means running it up into the half-court. Every time they walk it up their chances of winning a game die a little. I hope Mudiay was watching the bench showing the pace of play that makes this Nuggets team successful.
Rebounding. The Nuggets hustled up every loose ball and poor shot that touched rim in this game, setting a season high. Houston really missed Clint Capela, who was absent due to food poisoning, while the Nuggets team-rebounded everything. Faried fought for a lot of balls in the first half, but Joffrey had 11 boards, Barton had 9, Jokic snagged 7... they all did work. Some of that is because the Rockets jacked up a lot of long shots without rebounders in the paint, but in the past these Nuggets have allowed those long rebounds to go back to the opposing team. Not this time. Jokic was expecially effective against Motiejunas down the stretch, and hustled up the last rebound that closed out the game. It was a glimmer of what the Nuggets could be like with rebounding guards and wings and a stout, feisty frontcourt that will be complete once Nurkic returns. The Nuggets could have used Nurkic against Howard in this game, but getting the season sweep of the Rockets without him is still pretty sweet.
Development. Gary Harris had a career-high in points and looked nothing like the timid mouse he was last year. He was active on defense against Harden and lit up the Rockets with back cuts and slashing layups. He did everything a Nuggets shooting guard would ever need to do tonight, in the best style of Afflalo's great moments with the Nuggets. Harris is still just a second-year player working on improving his game, but he's leaps and bounds ahead of last year. It gives hope that the rookie struggles Mudiay is suffering through will be temporary as well. And he wasn't the only youngster growing before our eyes. Lauvergne's double-double was impressive even as he had some defensive lapses against Howard. Jokic played the trust minutes down the stretch for his coach and passed, rebounded and scored his way into deserving more of those minutes in the future. The bright future keeps waving in front of us, getting closer to being a bright present with every passing game.