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Preview: Nuggets in Houston for pivotal match up against Rockets

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The Nuggets take on the Beard one last time this season, and it’s a big one

NBA: Houston Rockets at Denver Nuggets Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Less than a week ago the season seemed over for the Denver Nuggets. Ugly losses to the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Hornets had seemingly sent Denver back to the lottery board as Jusuf Nurkic and the Blazers looked very much in control. But just as quickly as we were predicting the Nuggets’ demise, the team got right back in it.

Beat the Heat in Miami? Check. Portland loses to Minnesota? Check. Beat DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis? Check. Portland loses to Utah? Check. In a frankly surprising turn of events, the Nuggets have pulled to just a half-game behind the Blazers for the final playoff spot.

Denver is gaining momentum, but nothing is guaranteed - especially as the next obstacle in the way is the Houston Rockets. The Nuggets are quite familiar with James Harden and company, losing twice to them just two weekends ago in heartbreaking fashion. The mental mistakes that cost Denver those two close games will not be welcome here tonight if the Nuggets want to keep their playoff hopes alive. With the potential MVP likely back in the lineup following his first missed game of the year, the Nuggets can’t afford any slip ups and will need to execute perfectly to come away with a win.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (37-40) at Houston Rockets (52-25)

Where: Toyota Center, Houston TX

When: 6:00 PM MST

How to watch: Altitude

Rival blog: The Dream Shake

Position Nuggets Rockets Advantage
PG Jamal Murray Patrick Beverley Rockets
SG Gary Harris James Harden Rockets
SF Danilo Gallinari Eric Gordon Even
PF Kenneth Faried Trevor Ariza Nuggets
C Nikola Jokic Clint Capela Nuggets
Bench Wilson Chandler,Mason Plumlee, Emmanuel Mudiay Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Nene Even

Injury Report (UPDATED): Kenneth Faried - Questionable (Back); Jameer Nelson - Questionable (calf); Will Barton - Doubtful (foot); Darrell Arthur - Probable (knee); Ryan Anderson - Doubtful (ankle); Sam Dekker - Out (hand)

Key Matchup: Defending the pick and roll

James Harden will get his points no matter what, but what makes him so dangerous is how he exploits defenses in a variety of ways. Denver is certainly no exception. In the last two meetings, Denver got exposed big time by Harden and the Houston bigs in the pick and roll. Either Harden could waltz in for an easy layup or shot, or he’d throw a lob right over Jokic to Clint Capela or Nene for a slam. It was almost too easy. Finding any sort of way to slow down or stop Harden’s craft will be huge for the Nuggets tonight.

Key to the game: Defense

We know the Nuggets offense is good and can put the ball in the basket. We also know that Houston can do the same at will. The key to not only this game but to the rest of the season will be what Denver does on the defensive end of the court. The Nuggets played lax defense last night in New Orleans, and it nearly cost them. Against a prolific Houston offense, a defensive no-show would spell instant doom for Denver.

Opening thought: This is it

The Nuggets have been gifted a rare opportunity by the basketball gods to still be in the playoff conversation with just five games remaining. Not only that, but they are receiving some help as Portland has now lost two in a row. How glorious would it be for Denver to put the inconsistency ghost to rest and make the postseason with as little help as possible, by having to beat really good teams like Houston along the way? This is the Nuggets chance to prove they are a playoff caliber team. Playing the second night of a back to back is always difficult, but there’s no time for excuses anymore. Let’s hope they take care of business.