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Recap: Rockets down Nuggets 109-99 on a second half James Harden showcase

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The Nuggets didn’t play badly - they just didn’t play their game while the Rockets found theirs after halftime.

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

The Houston Rockets took off in the second half and pulled away from the Denver Nuggets down the stretch to take tonight’s game 109-99. Denver lost it’s fourth in a row and eighth in a row to the Rockets, who just have their number. The Nuggets looked out of sorts and had long, awkward stretches of offense that they simply could not overcome against a Rockets team that seems to be righting the ship in this early season. James Harden had a quiet first half but was dominant in the second, finishing with 22 points and 11 assists, and noted Nuggets killer Clint Capela had 24 points and 9 rebounds. Chris Paul chipped in 22 as Houston’s guards looked in control of the action for most of the game.

Monte Morris led Denver with 18 points - not usually a good sign - and added 6 assists, while Nikola Jokic had 14 points, 12 rebounds and 7 assists. It was a strange game, with Denver shooting 50% from the field but not getting to 100 points and not able to run the offense they wanted - more of a half-court slog on their end that could ill afford the slumps it did have.

James Ennis III opened the game with a three for the Rockets, but Denver answered back with a pair of baskets between Jamal Murray and Jokic. Some extra-curriculars between Harden and Murray diving for a ball led to some Jokic and Harden bumping on subsequent possessions but the game was tied at 7-7 after a Chris Paul step-back over Joker. Denver’s offense bogged down a bit with more clear-outs than cuts and Houston had an 8-0 run finally cut short by a Jokic bank shot. A Gary Harris three and some Paul Millsap free throws re-took the lead at 14-13. Monte Morris nailed a transition three off a Jokic assist and Harris hit another three in a great early showing.

Denver had a collection of bench players with starting guard to wrap the period and they hustled to finish the quarter. Gary drove the hoop off a scramble play for a beautiful rim finish, Mason Plumlee made a pair of free throws, and Morris finished a breakaway to help Denver close the first up 30-27.

Plumlee opened the quarter with a block at the rim that turned into a Lyles finish on the other end, and Morris and Eric Gordon exchanged three pointers. Lyles answered a Chris Paul traditional three pointer with another from behind the arc, and a Plumlee dunk took it to 40-33 Denver. Some turnovers and missed shots let Houston close within one, and then an Ennis layup and Capela dunk retakes the lead for Houston at 44-41.

Millsap missed a shot at the rim but got a steal and assist on a Morris three, then Millsap hit a three. A Morris-to-Jokic floater tied it at 49, and a Millsap 12 footer retook the lead for Denver. Both teams worked hard on the glass but the Nuggets squeaked out a one point lead at half time, 55-54, thanks to a couple of Murray paint finishes.

The Nuggets gave up a turnover and their brief lead on the first possession of the second half, but Murray tied it up in the lane and Juancho hit an open three to retake it. Another couple of turnovers made things hard on the Nuggets, though, despite Jokic’s pair of free throws tying it at 66. The Rockets kept attacking the rim and taking their threes, but Harris stole the ball back after another turnover and closed it back to 71-68. It was Jokic vs Harden for a few possessions, some potential assists didn’t fall while Denver’s switches had some holes in them unfortunately. The Rockets stretched their lead to 82-74 after getting some foul calls Denver was not getting.

Monte Morris swished a jumper but the Nuggets paid back a turnover by making one of their own, and just couldn’t buy the needed buckets to end the period scoring just 21 points. After three it was 86-76 Houston.

Torrey Craig made an appearance to start the fourth and immediately got a bucket and a block, and Morris hit a jumper. Chris Paul kept firing in threes but Craig hit a three of his own and Murray finished off a beautiful curl to the hoop to cut the lead to 4. Houston and Denver traded buckets to keep the Houston lead at 93-89 halfway through the period but the Rockets scored a couple buckets as Denver waited too long to get Jokic back in the game and the post feeds for Denver’s offense went nowhere.

James Harden scored 9 points in a row for the Rockets as Denver had no answer once he finally made threes. Denver went through another offensive drought theye could not afford as Houston completed a 13-2 run to go up 106-91. Juancho hit a three, Capela missed a pair of free throws and Murray sank a technical and a fadeaway to cut the lead to single digits with two minutes to go. Unfortunately that was Denver’s last gasp as their late threes just didn’t fall and the team lost by 10, 109-99.

Final Thoughts

Key number: 10. That was the difference in the number of free throws the Rockets took versus what Denver did. The Nuggets actually did pretty well for a half in keeping Houston off the line, but in a strangely-called game they just lost that grip in the second half. The Nuggets were griping at the officials all night, but continued to settle for jumpers or making mistakes at the basket instead of going through contact. The Rockets are a swipe-heavy team and that seemed to affect Denver’s offense as much as anything in this game. The turnovers weren’t awful - there were 16 - but the timing of some of them were pure momentum killers. Denver has to find ways to attack against teams that hunt the baskeball - ways that don’t include Jamal Murray trying to put up 50.

Denver is still out of sorts. If you look at the stat line - shooting 50 percent from the floor, including 44 percent from three, and netting 27 assists - it looks like a good Denver performance. Watching it, everything seemed far more labored than it needed to be. Not as much motion, too much standing around until deep in the shot clock, and too many grind-em-out possessions for a free-flowing offense. This offensive performance would have beaten the Memphis Grizzlies last week, but it doesn’t cut it against the Rockets. Stopping the guard penetration of Houston is never going to be a route to success for this version of the Nuggets, and if they can’t find that offense it’s going to get more frustrating as the schedule ramps up into December.

Denver needs to find its mojo as the early hot start is now squandered. Back to the drawing board, as the Nuggets had better find success against the Atlanta Hawks before the trifecta of the Pelicans, Bucks and Timberwolves will test Denver’s mettle and resolve in the coming days.