The Denver Nuggets would not let the fact that their starting backcourt was out with injury stop them from getting a major monkey off their back by defeating the Houston Rockets in emphatic fashion. With Jamal Murray and Gary Harris out the Nuggets leaned on their all-star Nikola Jokic as well as a career night from Malik Beasley to lay a whooping on the Rockets 136-122. Denver scored 48 points in the second quarter to put themselves ahead and they never looked back. James Harden maintained his thirty point scoring streak in the loss but it was otherwise a night of mostly low lights for Houston.
The Rockets opened with P.J. Tucker on Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets immediately went to him in the post for an easy bucket. Denver got a number of good looks from three early on but were unable to cash them in. Paul Millsap found his groove and Houston got sloppy with the basketball which allowed the Nuggets to build a small lead. Despite being undersized, Tucker provided solid D on Jokic early on. He used his speed to his advantage and pressured Jokic at the perimeter, disrupting Denver’s offense. Meanwhile, Harden started to get rolling, attacking the basket for layups and making threes or drawing fouls at the perimeter to swing the game in favor of the Rockets. Jokic kept the Nuggets in it but Denver had no answer for Harden. The benches checked in for the last two minutes of the quarter and continued the torrid pace, trading baskets until the last 30 seconds where the Nuggets closed out terribly and allowed a 6-0 Rockets run to stretch the lead to 43-35.
The second quarter opened like the first ended, with Jokic and Harden on the bench. The Nuggets bench found some life behind back to back dunks from Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig. The Rockets weren’t giving up the lead easy though with Kenneth Faried being the beneficiary of some easy looks at the basket. Just under the nine minute mark Harden checked back in with the Rockets up by five but it was Faried who continued to be the offense for Houston. Craig had an outstanding run of play early in the second, highlighted by an incredible put back slam. The starters began to check back in near the halfway point and kept the energy up. Millsap denied Faried at the rim which led to another highlight dunk, this time on the break courtesy of Beasley who was having an excellent half. Just before the six minute mark the Nuggets tied up the game and Jokic checked back in to the game. There was a different energy at the back end of the half, it seemed almost as if the Nuggets starters realized how close they got to letting Houston run all over them again were legitimately angry about it. Monte Morris was the latest Nugget to catch fire and behind him Denver went on a 14-2 run to build a double digit lead. After a timeout the Rockets got a couple of mid range buckets but the Nuggets, in particularly Beasley, were red hot from outside. Defense continued to be optional, Beasley continued to dominate, and the first half finished with the Nuggets leading on a ridiculous 83-71 score line.
Beasley picked up right where he left off, knocking down a three to open the second half and then Jokic scored seven straight points. The defense was still lax though, Houston wasn’t hitting threes and Harden came out of halftime cold but Chris Paul was attacking the basket along with other members of the Rockets supporting cast. After doing an excellent job taking care of the basketball in the first half, Denver was sloppy early on in the third quarter and the turnovers kept them from growing their lead. The Nuggets continued to get big contributions from Morris and Beasley to keep the lead around twelve though. Just before the four minute mark the Rockets got on a 6-0 run to trim Denver’s lead down to nine but Craig responded with a 5-0 run of his own to push it right back up. The Rockets took a timeout but the Nuggets remained white hot while Houston had finally gone cold. With thirty seconds left Morris knocked down a three to push Denver’s lead to twenty. The Nuggets held Houston to twenty-four points in the third.
Denver opened the fourth quarter with the bench, likely hoping to hold the lead for four to six minutes and force the game into garbage time. The Rockets certainly looked on the verge of giving in. Harden was on the bench, Isaiah Hartenstein made an appearance and James Ennis III seemed to be losing his cool a bit. Despite being fairly deep in their bench, Houston chipped away at the lead early on. The chippyness got Houston in trouble though, they put Denver in the bonus just two minutes into the quarter. The Rockets also went cold from the field so they couldn’t close the gap any further despite Beasley being the only one scoring on Denver’s side. Plumlee had an incredible stuff on Hartenstein at the 8 minute mark, right after Harden and Tucker checked back in the game. Harden got a three to put Houston within twelve but the Nuggets came right back behind Beasley and Craig to push it to sixteen. After a timeout the Rockets regrouped but as was the case throughout most of the quarter, they failed to cash in on their opportunities. Houston wouldn’t go away though, Harden hit one of his patented step back threes to put the lead back down to eleven and force a Denver timeout. They responded by going to Jokic who settled things down. He abused the Rockets in the paint and then found Craig on a backdoor cut. The Nuggets lead was seventeen and it was all over but the garbage time. The only bummer was Harden hit a late meaningless three to hit thirty points and extend his streak, otherwise an all around great game for Denver.
Key matchup: Nikola Jokic vs P.J. Tucker
Mike D’Antoni went with Tucker as the primary defender on Nikola tonight and that returned mixed results. It was pretty clear that Joker was going to make his presence felt and he punished Houston in the paint with his height advantage. He wound up dropping 31 points, grabbing 13 boards and dishing 9 assists. Tucker did provide about as good of defense as he could however and certainly limited the times where Jokic could put the ball on the floor. He also kept Jokic running around the perimeter on defense. While that didn’t really translate to points for Tucker, it did keep the lane relatively unclogged and that helped Faried get a lot of easy baskets and have a big night on the scoreboard.
Key thing I noticed: the depth was outstanding
No Murray, no Harris, no problem. Beasley, Morris and Craig were outstanding tonight. Malik was the headliner with a new career high and a consistent barrage of three point shooting and high flying dunks. Beasley has been playing excellent basketball lately but tonight was special. You could tell it was one of those games where everything felt like it was going in. That also seemed fairly true for Craig and Morris as well. Each had their moments throughout the night and were key in the Nuggets extended run through the second and third quarters. It was nice to see Craig hitting some threes to go with his patented energy. When he’s shooting like he was tonight he’s a valuable piece of the rotation. Morris also shot very well, after a bit of a slump he’s been outstanding filling in for Murray in the starting lineup.
Closing thought: huge win
The Nuggets finally exorcised their Rockets demon. You can make the argument that the Rockets didn’t have Clint Capela but it really holds no water when you consider the Nuggets were missing Murray and Harris. Now, what the Denver did tonight is obviously not sustainable but the way they beat Houston is encouraging none the less. Denver proved tonight that they’ve got the talent to do it, no doubt. Despite Harden getting his thirty points, he was fairly silent after the first quarter as well so all in all they did a pretty good job defending him. The Nuggets appeared to be content to let Harden beat them from the floor and limited his free throws to just nine attempts (where he uncharacteristically went 5-9). Yes, Houston is still a bad matchup for the Nuggets but tonight’s win will go miles in giving them confidence should they see this team in the postseason.