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Preview: Nuggets face big test against James Harden and the Houston Rockets

Riding a four game winning streak, Denver will be shorthanded against a hot Houston Rockets team.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The playoff race is heating up, and both the Denver Nuggets and Houston Rockets are in the thick of things.

The Rockets, led by MVP candidate James Harden, are currently the 3 seed in the Western Conference with a 47-22 record. They have 14 games to go to lock down their playoff positioning or possibly rise higher. Denver is currently positioned in the 8 seed at 33-35, fighting for their playoff lives by staving off other competitors like the Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, and Minnesota Timberwolves.

There’s no question that the Rockets are the better team than the Nuggets right now, and the Nuggets are dealing with injuries to Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, two very important forwards. That being said, Denver is currently riding a four game winning streak, including blowout wins against the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers. The Nuggets are playing their best basketball of the season, and if they can earn a win tonight, they will really put the pressure on the other competitors for the 8 seed.

The Basics

Who: Houston Rockets (47-22) at Denver Nuggets (33-35)

When: 7:30 PM MDT

Where: Pepsi Center, Denver CO

How to watch/listen: Altitude TV and Altitude Radio AM 950

Rival blog: The Dream Shake

Position Nuggets Rockets Advantage
PG Jameer Nelson Patrick Beverley Rockets
SG Gary Harris James Harden Rockets
SF Juancho Hernangomez Trevor Ariza Rockets
PF Mason Plumlee Ryan Anderson Even
C Nikola Jokic Clint Capela Nuggets
Bench Jamal Murray, Will Barton, Kenneth Faried, maybe even Emmanuel Mudiay Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Nene Rockets

Injury Report: Danilo Gallinari - out (knee), Wilson Chandler - out (groin), Darrell Arthur - doubtful (knee soreness)

This is a foreboding tweet from Altitude TV’s Christopher Dempsey:

The fact that both Gallo and Chandler have been deemed out so early is a little worrisome for the rest of the season. With just 14 games to go, the Nuggets need as many healthy bodies as they can get. Gallo and Chandler have both started and average the most minutes per game for this Nuggets team, and they are incredibly important for the stretch run.

Key Matchup: Gary Harris vs James Harden

No one can stop the Beard, and trying to do so will lead to embarrassment. Gary Harris can make life more difficult for him though. Denver’s best chance at winning this game is to force Harden to take tough shots. If Harden is allowed free passage to the rim for himself and to set up teammates, Denver will lose. If Denver can wall off Harden’s passing targets and rely on Harris to generate a steal on occasion, then the Nuggets have a chance. On the other end, Harris has been playing very efficiently. He needs to hit some outside shots and cut for some easy shots at the rim if Denver wants to keep pace with a high powered Rockets offense.

Key thing to watch for: The forward rotation

With Gallinari, Chandler, and Arthur likely out, the Nuggets will likely start Juancho Hernangomez and Mason Plumlee at the forward positions. One is a rookie, and the other is more of a center than anything. Against the Rockets and their heavy barrage of three pointers, this isn’t a great position to be in. I wouldn’t recommend starting Will Barton or Kenneth Faried either, so the Nuggets are just going to have to gut it out. Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson complement Harden extremely well from the perimeter, so the Nuggets can’t simply focus on the MVP candidate.

Opening thought: Gut check time

Denver has won four in a row. Now what? The Rockets will be on a back-to-back. Now what? The Nuggets are in a good position to steal a game against the Rockets, especially if they come to Denver tired and willing to hoist bad three point attempts. Without Gallinari and Chandler, it becomes harder for the Nuggets to play defense the way they need to in order to win this game. Denver must force James Harden to try and get 50 points and wall off the open three point shots he generates for others. If they do that, they might have a chance to win.