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Preview: Nuggets start their road trip against injured Rockets

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The Nuggets might be able to catch a break, with James Harden potentially shelved for their game Monday night.

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

The final day of 2019 brings a fun, riveting matchup between two Western Conference contenders, playing at the peak of their abilities in what could be a playoff series preview.

Actually, scratch that — on the final day of 2019, two teams that are grinding through another 82 game season come together with starters potentially sitting due to injuries, in what could be a chaotic, physical game that is peak mid-season NBA basketball.

James Harden missed the Rockets previous game with a toe injury, while Russell Westbrook sat due to load management. Westbrook should be back for tonight’s game, which means, you could basically carbon copy the 2018-19 Thunder and that’s what tonight’s game will sort of look like. You can expect about 36 field goal attempts for Westbrook, maybe 15-20 for someone else, and single digits for the other 7 players that get minutes on the court.

On the other hand, the Nuggets were without Gary Harris and Paul Millsap in their most recent game, but they were able to insert Michael Porter Jr. into the starting lineup and defeat the Sacramento Kings. Did you miss the game? You’re going to want to watch the highlights of the Nuggets rookie.

While Millsap and Harris may be back in the starting lineup, the game against the Kings went incredibly well for Porter. He still had some rookie moments, but he looked like a real difference maker, flashing the potential that all Nuggets fans have believed was there the whole time. Whatever happens going forward, if he remains healthy, he looks like a real contributor.

The Basics

Who: Denver Nuggets (23-9) vs Houston Rockets (22-11)

Where: Toyota Center, Houston, Texas

When: 5:00 PM MT

How to Watch: NBATV, League Pass

Rival Blog: The Dream Shake

Projected Matchups

Nuggets vs Rockets

POS DEN HOU EDGE
POS DEN HOU EDGE
PG Jamal Murray Russell Westbrook Rockets
SG Gary Harris Eric Gordon Nuggets
SF Will Barton Danuel House Nuggets
PF Paul Millsap PJ Tucker Even
C Nikola Jokic Tyson Chandler Nuggets
BENCH Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Jerami Grant, Michael Porter Jr, Juancho Hernangomez, Mason Plumlee Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, Chris Clemons, Gary Clark, Isaiah Hartenstein Nuggets

Injuries: James Harden (probable - toe), Clint Capela (questionable - heel), Gerald Green (out - foot), Nene (out - old); Paul Millsap (questionable - thigh), Gary Harris (probable - shin).

Three Things to Watch

Can Jokic have a huge game? If the Rockets won’t have Clint Capela or James Harden available, that will be a huge blessing for Jokic. Capela is an incredibly tough matchup for Jokic, forming a lethal duo with Harden in the pick and roll as a lob finisher while Harden has the timing to really mess with Jokic around the rim. With that challenge on defense avoided, that might mean that Jokic has more energy to spend on offense. He should also have an easier time avoiding foul trouble, which in turn frees up additional minutes for him to play. Nuggets fans are well aware of what Westbrook on his own can do to them, so the team is probably going to find themselves in a situation where they’re going to need Jokic to perform at an All-Star level to help them get and sustain a lead.

How will the bench perform? The Rockets bench has been depleted due to injuries this season, but they’re the kind of team that could get hot from behind the 3-point arc and just incinerate their opponent. The Nuggets can’t get find themselves getting blitzed by Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, and Chris Clemons — they need to be able to be disciplined in transition, fight through screens, and make sure to secure long rebounds. They don’t want to find themselves in another loss like they played themselves into against the Pelicans on Christmas.

When do the MP-stepback-J shirts drop? The game against the Kings was exciting, and it’s hard to not wonder when Nuggets fans will get to see Porter get that many minutes again. Will Malone play him more minutes now that the Kroenkes have given Malone a contract extension? Was it just because of the injuries to Harris and Millsap? Are there going to be more minutes of Porter with the starters, but he comes off the bench? What does the future hold? GIVE ME ANSWERS.

Prediction

Nuggets 108 - Rockets 104.