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Recap: Denver Nuggets smother James Harden and the Houston Rockets, win 105-95

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What a defensive performance

Houston Rockets v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets came into tonight with just one victory over the Houston Rockets in the past three seasons. The Rockets came into tonight on an eight game winning streak. Despite the long term and recent history, it was the Nuggets who would end up with the victory. Denver played an excellent defensive scheme to limit James Harden to his lowest scoring output since opening night. Nikola Jokic led the way for Denver while getting an all around effort from the rest of the team. Denver finds a way to get the Rockets monkey off their back and take this one 105-95.

The Nuggets opened up the game with buckets on their first three possessions to get a 7-0 lead. The Rockets fought back, aided by a pair of sloppy Denver turnovers, and took back the lead at 10-9. The Rockets would end up scoring thirteen straight before Gary Harris finally ended the run with a transition dunk. Harden had a quick seven points but Denver was doubling him consistently and making other players hit shots. That strategy worked well and Houston’s offense stalled around the midway point of the quarter. The Nuggets rattled off a 13-0 run of their own and forced a Houston timeout as they stretched the lead to seven. The benches started checking in after that. Westbrook finally knocked down a three to end the Rockets drought with just over two minutes to go. Harden and Westbrook accounted for almost all of Houston’s points in the first but the Nuggets had enough to stay ahead and led 27-22 after one.

The second quarter opened up with a clank fest for Denver. They went one of six to open the quarter before Juancho Hernangomez had a big putback dunk and Mason Plumlee followed it with a little bully ball inside. Through the first part of the second quarter Denver maintained a small lead but wasted an opportunity to take control of the game because of their offensive struggles. Still, the Nuggets were doing a good job of frustrating Harden and keeping him at bay. As the rest of the starters checked back in the Nuggets offense stalled a bit but they maintained their lead. Every time Houston started getting close to tying the game the Nuggets had the response. Jokic in particular was having success. He was giving the Rockets a lot of trouble in the paint and on the offensive glass. On the other end Harden and Westbrook proved to be just enough to keep the Rockets hanging around. Harden nailed a step back three right before half, he and Westbrook combined for thirty-two first half points which limited the Nuggets lead to just three points.

The Nuggets opened the half with the same strategy they had in the first: double Harden and be content to let other Rockets have open shots. Houston continued to struggle beyond the arc and the strategy continued to pay off. However, the Nuggets were cold from the floor and couldn’t extend their lead. The defensive effort was outstanding though. Houston was completely baffled by the way Denver was approaching them on defense and Denver was able to take advantage of a couple fast break opportunities to finally get some offensive momentum and stretch their lead to eight. No one player was dominating on offense but Denver had a good all round effort going. They kept the lead right around ten as the quarter moved towards the back half. Houston finally got some momentum when they got back to back threes from Chris Clemons and Harden and that brought the lead back under ten. Denver’s bench was able to keep pace while Westbrook and Harden closed out the quarter. After three the Nuggets were up nine.

The bench brought energy to start the fourth, Hernangomez in particular was having another good night. Houston’s energy was not as strong to open the final quarter. They were essentially making one pass and shooting it while the Nuggets were relentless. However, as had been the case throughout most of the night, when the Nuggets had a chance to really blow things open their offense went cold. Still, the defense was holding strong and created transition opportunities. Torrey Craig highlighted a Nuggets run with a 360 dunk on a break away and the lead was back above ten. Halfway through the quarter the Nuggets were on the precipice of putting it away but again just couldn’t quite string together a couple baskets to get the job done. Likewise, when Houston started getting stops they went cold on offense. With just over four minutes to go and the Nuggets up by fourteen coach Mike D’Antoni stated to relent and went to his reserves. Nobody scored for another minute or so before Jokic got a putback and then Isaiah Hartenstein made silly goaltend to give Craig an and-one and it was garbage time. Nuggets get the big win 105-95.

Best matchup: Nikola Jokic vs Clint Capela

Houston Rockets v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The big men were at their best tonight. Jokic was the leading force on the offensive end for the Nuggets and was able to do damage both down low and out at the three point line. He was very efficient with his shooting as the Rockets seemed content to let him shoot threes and also gave him way too many looks from about the five to ten foot range. Capela wasn’t quite as effective scoring, but he was an absolute monster on the glass. The Nuggets consistent doubling on Harden took away a lot of the pick and roll game that Capela is so good at which helped keep him at bay. Still though, Capela was a big factor for the Rockets.

Main thing I noticed: the Nuggets figured out the Rockets tonight

The Nuggets have had a long line of struggles with the Rockets but most all of them start with James Harden. The strategy tonight was clear: contain Harden at all costs. Denver threw double team after double team at Harden but they were smart about it. The Nuggets often times waited until the action had started before throwing the double at James. This had the effect of gumming up the Rockets offense and left them stuck in no man’s land not sure where to go. That resulted in a bunch of turnovers and ultimately one of the poorer performances from Harden on the season (still got 27). Who knows if what happened tonight is repeatable but for at least one evening the Nuggets didn’t look totally over matched by Houston.

Closing thought: Juancho has been so good

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

It was a bit of a surprise when Hernangomez suddenly started getting rotation minutes over Malik Beasley but the move has paid dividends for the Nuggets. Once again he was outstanding with his energy tonight. Juancho is one of those guys that does enough things well that you can put him in almost any lineup. He continues to do all the little things while also stepping up when his number gets called and though his box scores don’t blow you away, his effect on the game has been tremendous.