The outcome of this basketball game won’t be remembered down the line. Sure it had some implications on the playoffs, but this day will be remembered for different reasons. Earlier today, it was announced that basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna passed away in a helicopter crash. Once that news reached Pepsi Center, the basketball itself became far less important.
Still, a game was played, and the Nuggets won 117-110. Nikola Jokic had himself another triple-double, Jerami Grant had 25, while Monte Morris and Michael Porter Jr. chipped in 17 points apiece off the bench. Jokic was the driving force, but it really was a team effort.
Starting this game, the Nuggets struggled to check Russell Westbrook and the offensive-minded Rockets starting unit. Denver managed to claw their way back into it on the shoulders of some hot shooting from Jerami Grant and creation from Nikola Jokic, but Houston kept up the pressure offensively. Westbrook got the best of Torrey Craig on a number of occasions, while Houston hit four three-pointers early. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, Jokic was the only one to create offense for others in the first quarter. He had three of Denver’s four assists in the frame as Denver trailed 36-27 at the end of the first.
To begin the second quarter, the Nuggets and Rockets both played small ball with P.J. Tucker and Jerami Grant both playing center. Both offenses appeared disjointed, but the biggest difference was the Rockets fighting on the offensive glass. Houston sometimes had three or even four chances to score due to their grabbing of offensive rebounds. Capela had six boards on that end by himself, and the Rockets had roughly 1,000 second chance points keeping them ahead in this game. Denver was fortunate to have such an efficient performance from Grant, who scored 17 points on 7 shots, hitting all three of his three-pointers. Denver trailed Houston 59-57 at half, but it could have been much worse.
To start the third quarter, the Nuggets really started to get rolling offensively, with Jokic, Grant, and Barton starting to hit some important shots. Unfortunately for Denver, the fouls also came in droves, some extremely questionable calls. Michael Malone challenged Barton’s fourth foul and got the call reversed, but midway through the third, Barton, Grant, and Craig were all forced to sit with four fouls. Even after the midpoint, some of the calls going Houston’s way were...questionable to say the least. Still, Denver kept it close, with Jokic doing everything, Porter hitting his spot up threes, and some transition buckets here and there. Denver ultimately retook the lead 90-89 at the end of three.
At the beginning of the fourth, Westbrook, Tucker, and Eric Gordon on the floor with Jokic on the bench. This was the deciding moment, and both Porter and Monte Morris stepped up in a big way. Four three-pointers between the two of them while the Rockets struggled the generate offense on the other end extended the lead with Jokic siting. When Jokic returned the Rockets made one final push, hitting some threes and getting all the way to the rim, but Jokic did his thing, hit a Sombor Shuffle, and kept Denver engaged defensively. It was close, but Denver pulled it out, 117-110.
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James Harden’s health kept the Beard out of this game, and as a result, the Nuggets didn’t have to deal with 48 minutes of Harden and Russ running the show. Still, Westbrook gave the Nuggets many problems tonight. He had 32 points on 29 shots, but Denver also forced 10 turnovers. That was huge down the stretch in ensuring Denver had enough offense to win this one.
How does Denver’s bench play out? Jerami Grant once again served as the backup center with Michael Porter Jr. playing backup power forward. Monte Morris and Malik Beasley joined them as the permanent reserves while Harris and Barton staggered as the fifth man. This unit struggled to score but kept it close while Jokic got a breather. Grant made some important plays, Porter hit some important shots off-ball, and Morris did just enough to keep the show running.
Is Denver’s clutch offense good enough? It wasn’t perfect, and Denver relied pretty heavily on Jokic every possession, but they got it done. Denver’s most important stretch came early in the fourth when Morris and MPJ helped Denver get some separation. That allowed Denver to play a bit more conservatively and run the clock down several times. Jokic hit the Sombor Shuffle as well. Any time he does that, it’s a win.