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Preview: Denver Nuggets face tall task and old friend as Houston Rockets come to town

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Can Denver get over the Houston hump?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets are back home briefly for a one game showdown with the Houston Rockets. After winning back to back games on the road, Denver looks to keep the good vibes going by beating a thorn in their side tonight. Without a doubt, the latest iteration of the Nuggets have struggled with the Rockets moreso than any other team. The Rockets combination of extremely high level pick and roll ball handlers with excellent roll men creates a very difficult matchup problem for the Nuggets and specifically their star Nikola Jokic. With the Rockets able to pick and choose their matchups so well by forcing a switch through their pick and roll, Nikola consistently finds himself against those aforementioned ball handlers such as James Harden or Chris Paul at the perimeter. Commit to the switch and get put on an island, don’t commit to the switch and pray you can recover to get back to Clint Capela or Kenneth Faried as they are rolling with a vengeance to the rim. Neither is ideal for a guy like Jokic.

Luckily, Capela will not play and CP3 may not play as well. Of course, it’s generally been Harden who has been the main problem for Denver and he has been on a tear unlike any that’s been seen in his career. The last time Harden scored under thirty points was December 11th...when he scored 29. He’s almost single handedly vaulted Houston back into the race for home seeding in the first round of the playoffs and has thrust himself to the front of the MVP conversation. No matter what, if the Nuggets expect to win tonight they will have to do so by containing Harden first and foremost.

The Basics

Who: Houston Rockets (29-21) at Denver Nuggets (35-15)

When: 8:00 PM MST

Where: The Can, Denver CO

How to watch/listen: Altitude TV, AltitudeNOW.com, the AltitudeNOW app and Altitude Radio 92.5

Rival Blog: The Dream Shake

Projected Matchups

Position Nuggets Rockets Advantage
Position Nuggets Rockets Advantage
PG Monte Morris Chris Paul Rockets
SG Gary Harris Eric Gordon Nuggets
SF Will Barton James Harden Rockets
PF Paul Millsap P.J. Tucker Nuggets
C Nikola Jokic Kenneth Faried Nuggets
Bench Malik Beasley, Mason Plumlee, Trey Lyles, Juancho Hernangomez, Torrey Craig James Ennis III, Austin Rivers, Gerald Green, Nene Nuggets

Injured players: Gary Harris - game time decision (groin), Jamal Murray - out (ankle), Isaiah Thomas - out (hip), Michael Porter Jr - out (back), Chris Paul - game time decision (back), Nene - game time decision (rest), Danuel House Jr - game time decision (undisclosed), Clint Capela - out (thumb).

Key matchup: James Harden vs whoever guards him

As I said, Harden kills the Nuggets, always has. With Harris questionable tonight it’ll be interesting to see the way coach Michael Malone goes with trying to slow The Beard. Even if Gary plays you have to assume that he’s not at 100% which makes you question whether or not he’s the right choice to chase Harden around screens and through step-backs all night long. Will Barton might be more effective, though his own return from injury was not that long ago. Barton has more length, and if fully healthy can be a capable defender, though Harden is not the typical defensive assignment. Coach could also go with Torrey Craig, who might have the best shot of any Nugget at containing Harden, but Craig’s inconsistent shooting has been a major problem with the starting unit, to the point that coach was forced to make a change in the game Wedensday night and remove Craig from the starting lineup. No matter what Harden’s going to be a problem, but the Nuggets need to find the defender who can at least keep him around 30 points and not let him go super nova while also not handicapping their own offense.

Key thing to watch for: Faried is back

Yes, Kenneth Faried made his official return to the Pepsi Center back in November when he was still a member of the Brooklyn Nets but he did not play in that game as a coach’s decision. With the Rockets, Faried has slotted in as the new starting center while Capela has been sidelined and thus far he’s played very well. He’s had three straight double-doubles, including a monster 21 point, 14 rebound performance against the Toronto Raptors, and he’s averaging nearly 15 and 10 in his five games with Houston. Of course, with Faried gobbling up the boards and getting easy buckets near the rim was never the problem, it was always the defensive end. There’s a good likelihood that Kenneth is going to get a heavy dose of defending Nikola and that is where the Nuggets need to take advantage. No doubt Faried is bringing his “A” game tonight against his former team but I’m still extremely skeptical about his ability to defend arguably the best center in the game.

Opening thought: Really good to get a win tonight

The schedule makers did the Nuggets no favors on this weekend. After tonight’s late tip, the Nuggets will immediately hop on a plane and fly to Minnesota for a 7PM tip tomorrow night. Winning against a division opponent that’s still striving for the postseason in their building on the second night of a grueling back to back is, well, tough. Realistically you have to expect 1-1 to be the best the Nuggets can do over these two games and I think it’s far more important to get the win against Houston than it is to get it against Minnesota. First of all, the schedule is set up for the win tonight with the Nuggets rested and at home but more importantly, the Nuggets need this win psychologically. Denver needs to get past the “we can’t beat Houston” mentality. Losing tonight, with Capela out, would be very damaging to that effort.