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Preview: Nuggets to host Houston Rockets in Sunday matinee

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Whether James Harden plays or not, this game should be a slugfest

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Houston Rockets Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets caught the Denver Nuggets with two games in five days at the absolute worst time.

With Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, and Mason Plumlee out due to injury while Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. missed the first game, there was no conceivable way the Nuggets could win last Wednesday’s matchup against James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and co. without a massive Nikola Jokic performance. Unfortunately for Denver, Jokic was merely “really good” and the Nuggets were still caught on the wrong side of a blowout. Denver already struggles to match up with Harden due to his immense array of scoring, passing, and foul-drawing moves, and removing five important rotation players didn’t help matters.

After Harris and Porter Jr. returned on Friday night to best Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans, their reinforcements could help even the odds against the Rockets; however, it’s not a perfect fix. Harden is a different beast, and the Nuggets struggle mightily with Clint Capela when the proper personnel isn’t on the floor. Millsap being out hurts.

But this game is more important than a standard regular season game against a possible playoff opponent. The Rockets lead the season series 2-1 with Denver, and losing this game would ensure the Rockets have a tiebreaker over the Nuggets if they finish with the same regular season record. That could mean the difference between playing the Utah Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of a playoff series. Denver needs those advantages if at all possible.

The Basics

Who: Houston Rockets (28-16) at Denver Nuggets (31-14)

When: 1:30PM MST

Where: Pepsi Center. Denver, CO.

How to watch/listen: NBA TV if out of region, Altitude TV and KKSE Altitude Radio 92.5FM

Rival Blog: The Dream Shake

Projected Matchups

PG: Gary Harris vs Russell Westbrook

SG: Will Barton vs James Harden

SF: Torrey Craig vs Ben McLemore

PF: Jerami Grant vs P.J. Tucker

C: Nikola Jokic vs Clint Capela

*Matchups assume James Harden will play

Three Things to Watch:

James Harden’s health could basically decide the outcome of this game. He is questionable with a bruised thigh that occurred during Houston’s matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night. Harden was forced to leave the game and Westbrook picked up the slack. That was against Minnesota though, and Denver has much better options matching up with Russ for 48 minutes, namely Craig and Harris but also Barton and even Grant on switches. If Harden doesn’t play or is limited in what he can do, Denver can play a more balanced game and key on Westbrook.

How does Denver’s bench play out? Denver used all 12 of their active players on Friday against New Orleans, utilizing Jarred Vanderbilt and Juancho Hernangomez for stretches and even getting Vlatko Cancar on the floor for roughly 90 seconds. Porter Jr. will factor in if healthy, and he brings a dimension the Rockets didn’t have to face on Wednesday. Monte Morris and Malik Beasley will assumably play as well, with both players performing well recently and providing a needed spacing threat. Will Vanderbilt play minutes at center again? Is Juancho a trustable option against the Rockets? Does Dozier get time?

Is Denver’s clutch offense good enough? Against New Orleans, the Nuggets nearly fell apart. Nikola Jokic tired out after doing everything for the entire game and was missing shots repeatedly, but Denver didn’t have another trusted option on the floor. Will Barton has been good for most of the season but can go into cold streaks quickly. Gary Harris may not be comfortable offensively for awhile. Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant aren’t creators in those situations. If it comes down to it, Denver may need to insert one or more of Morris, Beasley, or Porter Jr. to kick start the offense and maintain a lead. More ball handling and/or spacing will make Denver more dynamic in those situations and less one dimensional going through Jokic every single possession. Denver can’t risk Jokic getting too tired or banged up in Game 46 of the regular season. Give him some help.