Despite a valiant team effort, poor late-game execution and horrendous three-point shooting haunted the Nuggets in the end. Denver now sits a full game behind Portland for the eight seed, while Houston has officially clinched the third seed in the victory. The Nuggets had five players in double-digits, including Nikola Jokic who was one assist shy of yet another triple-double. James Harden put up a casual 31 points in the victory.
The Nuggets offense picked up where it left off last night as Harris started things off with a deep three, followed by another triple by Gallinari. Denver’s ball movement enabled them to find some easy buckets, but Trevor Ariza found his groove early for Houston by hitting two corner threes in the meanwhile. While the Nuggets offense hummed along, the defense stalled, especially in transition, and the Rockets were rewarded with seven easy fast break points as a result. Harden was quiet for the first few minutes of the first, but made his presence felt by drawing two superstar (aka bs) fouls on Gary Harris to work his way to nine first quarter points.
Once the reserves came in, Nene dominated Plumlee in the post though the help defense was severely lacking for Denver. The lax defense overall was again a bugaboo for the Nuggets, who let Houston shoot 68% from the field and go 5-for-9 from three. Denver found itself down 36-25 after one.
The second quarter didn’t start off any better as the Nuggets bench was ice cold, missing every shot imaginable. Meanwhile, the Rockets sans Harden feasted on poor Denver, building the lead to nearly 20 points by using this strategy:
High screen with Capela, slip to the rim, finish over Jokic. Rinse, repeat.— Harrison Wind (@NBAWind) April 6, 2017
Things weren’t look good, but Jamal Murray and the Nuggets starters decided to show some signs of life, and were ultimately helped by some poor Rockets shooting of their own. Murray in particular was very effective on the fast break, propelling Denver on a 12-2 run. Denver continued to take advantage of Houston going 0-for-7 from three in the second to ultimately climb back to single digits at half, 59-50.
Fortunately, the Nuggets came out aggressive in the second half. Gallo drew three free throws on a three-point attempt, Jokic had a nice post up and Harris had a steal and dunk as Denver started off on a 13-5 run. The Nuggets cut the deficit to one, but as Houston began pulling away Jameer Nelson hit some timely threes. The latter end of the third turned into a shootout; Harris animorphed into a beast on offense, scoring six straight points while Jokic made his presence felt on defense with a block and several steals.
Houston did go on a 7-0 run thanks to Harden and Nene, and some guy named Troy Williams had a nasty dunk over Plumlee to end the quarter. After three, Houston held the lead at 85-79.
Denver continued its aggressive play in the fourth. Emmanuel Mudiay took hold of the reins, driving hard to paint and earning four free throws in the process. His energy fueled the Nuggets, who was able to keep it close throughout the frame. Harden, however, took over just as Harden does: making shots and working the refs for free throws.
Denver’s late game execution was questionable, as sloppy passes, a knack for jacking up three pointers despite shooting 18% on the night, and one horrible side out of bounds play put it over the top. Houston held on for the win, 110-104.
I don’t have much to say here - the Nuggets competed hard and fought back when they were down in the first half. They shouldn’t have even been in this game as they shot just 18.4% from three and 39% from the field overall. My biggest qualm is that they had 62 points in the paint and were scoring down low almost at will, yet they continually reverted back to chucking threes and isolation basketball time and time again. If there’s any silver lining it’s that this was still a winnable game, and I can’t help but think of how earlier this season a game like this would have been a blowout loss instead of just six points. Maybe a year from now a more fluid Denver team will be able to close out tough games like this.
The Nuggets playoff aspirations took a big hit, but again the season isn’t over. They just can’t afford any more bad games. Also, go Utah, Minnesota and San Antonio.