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Recap: Denver loses a heartbreaker in Houston, 125-124

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The playoffs are slipping away game by game, despite some great efforts by Denver’s youth

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets had their chances, but once again couldn’t solve the riddle of the Houston Rockets and lost 125-124 in thrilling and ultimately frustrating game. There are no rewards for being close, and Denver just cannot seem to pull that rabbit out of a hat when they need one. Gary Harris scored a career-high 28, Nikola Jokic had 22 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists (but also 5 turnovers) and Will Barton had 24 / 8 / 7 but it was not enough. No one could make the crucial play down the stretch to take Denver over the top, and Harden’s 39 / 7 / 11 proved the difference as he made both the final bucket and the final defensive play to pull it out for Houston.

Denver cut to the hoop early and worked in transition to begin the game, but Houston got easy hoops near the basket in a repeat of Saturday's contest. Jokic blocked Clint Capella, but a trio of badly-missed threes by Denver kept them from taking advantage. Houston uncorked a couple of threes and got a Harden steal-and-dunk to take a 12-6 lead. Plumlee dunked back to continue Denver's 1st quarter success inside, and Harris was the rest of the offense with 9 of Denver's first 13.

Denver struggled with ball control, though, putting up 4 turnovers in the first 7 minutes and 7 for the quarter. After some blown layups and a couple of bad turnovers by Jokic are finally cleansed by a 3/4 court chest-pass from Jokic to make it 25-18 Houston. The Nuggets kept turning the ball over the rest of the way, suffering a lack of energy on both sides of the ball, and only Barton's last-minute 3s kept the deficit at single digits after trailing by 13. Houstion led 35-28 after one.

Emmanuel Mudiay joined Murray and Barton to start the second and the bench had much better energy. Juancho banked in a lane shot then got to the line to cut the lead to 3. Mudiay buried a 3 (followed by a turnover) and Barton completed a 3-point play to put Denver up 38-36 with Harden on the bench. Murray scrapped with Patrick Beverly, Mudiay hit another three and Denver finally found their road game, up 45-42 when Harden came back in the game. Jokic had a pair of assists, one brilliant, to make it 49-44.

Jokic to that point had 8 rebounds and 6 assists but no points, and Jamal's off-balance three offset one of Harden's while Juancho's offset another. Harris continued his assault on the net with 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting in the first half. Denver had a 63-56 lead with 3 minutes to go, but Harden just would not be stopped. He had 20 points, Jameer turned the ball over twice at the end and Denver crept into halftime up 65-62.

Both teams came out of halftime with poor shots. Denver missed its first 4 until Jokic found some aggression and did a coast-to-coast for a 3-point play. The teams traded buckets and fouls but a Mason-to-Harris-to-Juancho dunk made it 76-73 Denver.

The referees tried to keep the whistles coming, but the two teams then got into a flopfest, with Jokic tossing a fine-worthy flop on Harden. Faried had two costly turnovers in the paint and one led to a Rockets 3 to tie the game at 85. Barton came off the bench to get some crucial points as the two teams traded blows, as Harden and Murray buried threes. Barton hit a three and Murray buried a pair of free throws to put the Nuggets up 97-94 after 3.

The Rockets made three straight 3s for a 9-0 run with Harden on the bench to start the 4th, as Denver's offense staggered out of the gate. Murray made some poor decisions that Denver tried to overcome with hustle - the Nuggets got scrappy on the ground but couldn't recapture the lead. Harris set a new career-high on a 3 in the fourth as all of Denver's non-Jameer guards had good scoring nights.

A Jokic paint bucket cut the deficit to three with just under 5 minutes to go, but Harden was a tough scorer to stop as always, and the threes kept raining. Jameer finally hit a three of his own to make it 118-114, Houston. A Hernangomez tip cut it to 2 with a 90 seconds to go, and then Harden MVPed a 3-ball that was answered by a Barton triple. The Nuggets blew a 3-on-1 fastbreak but Barton got a 3-point play to take the lead at 124-123. Nelson airballed a terrible shot after running the time down and Harden went coast-to-coast to retake the lead with 2.4 seconds left.

Denver brought Mason Plumlee back in to provide both a screening and dunk option and the Nuggets got the final winner-take-all shot - and lost it as Harden bodied Plumlee out of bounds on an ill-advised oop attempt from Jokic. Leaving your best post scorer out of bounds when all you need is a 2 to win is one of many dicey decisions in this game, but Denver lost two games to Houston by a total of 5 points. Both games felt like a playoff pressure cooker, and both times the Nuggets came up short in a season that looks more and more like it will come up short of the actual playoffs as well.

Takeaways:

- Gary Harris is the second-best player on this team. He’s not a volume scorer, but he does everything right to make this point-center offense work optimally. He was terrific again tonight, showing off his array of back-cuts and beyond-the-arc bombs, and even his improving passing skills (he had 4 assists). Harris continues to show he’s one of the most complete 2-guards in the league, and Denver has locked down another key piece in this rebuild next to Jokic.

- The kids really do play well together. Denver has played a ton of lineups, but very few minutes have gone to their Under-23 squad, consisting of Mudiay / Murray / Harris / Juancho / Jokic. It makes sense; you want some vets out there in case things go wrong. The young guys came in together tonight and brought energy, off-ball movement, rebounding and most importantly they played together with an understandable hierarchy. The bench outscored Houston’s 19-5 in the 2nd quarter.

They struggled more to start the 4th but fought back with the help of Barton off the bench, and running that many young kids out there in a tight match with an MVP candidate and one of the best teams in the West is ballsy. Having them give as well as they get is impressive.

- It’s not enough. Yes, I know Denver was missing three veterans, but Jameer Nelson is supposed to be the steady veteran hand on this team and he had 5 points in 31 minutes with a brutal airball and some ball-stopping offensive decisions late in the game. The kids will be fine. Jokic needs to work on his defense, which was pretty terrible, and his frustration with the refs got the better of him at multiple points. Murray has a couple years’ worth of work to put in refining his point guard game, but that’s what the veterans are supposed to be for. Faried had a stretch of 3 turnovers in under 3 minutes on just silly plays. The whole team turned the ball over 19 times - something I’m sure Malone will point out eleventy-thousand times in the post-game - but Malone didn’t help his team with timeout ATO plays, especially at the end.

Everybody’s learning, but there are just too many constant mistakes being made. Regardless of the rest of the mistakes, though, it would be nice if Denver could EVER get a designed win at the end of a game when it’s actually on the line. Kids will make mistakes, but when it’s a one- or two-possession game that’s when it’s time for the staff and the vets to show what they actually bring to the party. That’s something Malone has to solve for himself.

Maybe next year, because it’s not looking like they’ll get a chance in the post-season. That’s all, folks.