The Denver Nuggets look to continue to build their post-Jamal-Murray construction and figure out their rotations without their star guard. Tonight they will test themselves against the Houston Rockets, who as the second-worst team in the league on a 4 game losing streak shouldn’t put up much resistance to their experimentation – but the Nuggets can’t take anything for granted. They need every win in a tightly-packed center of the race for home court in the playoffs in the Western Conference, and teams that want to win championships win these games. They won’t have the emotion of it being the first game without Murray – that was the Heat, and they got the job done – but now the grind really starts. The Nuggets will need to stay focused on the task at hand: putting another checkmark in the win column.

The Essentials

Who: Denver Nuggets (35-20, 16-10 away) vs Houston Rockets (14-41, 7-20 at home)

When: 6:00 p.m. MST

Where: Toyota Center, Houston TX

How to watch/listen: Denver Stiffs does not condone piracy… unless it’s the romanticized 18th-century type. AltitudeTV where available. League Pass for non-Denver market viewers. Show up on Zoom. 92.5 FM KKSE Altitude Sports Radio.

Three Things to Watch

Get it done. Denver will continue to mess around with rotations, but they can’t mess around with wins. The Nuggets are the 4-seed in the West right now, a game and a half up on the Lakers to retain home court come the playoffs. Fans are coming back to games now, and by playoff time the expectation is for real crowds to be allowed and for the atmosphere to be less like the Bubble and more like the mania that is the normal postseason’s bright lights. Denver will want every advantage it can get, and home court is one. If the bench pieces aren’t working out, expect Denver’s starters to play long minutes. This is not a back-to-back for Denver and they don’t play again til Monday. They should be all-in for this game.

Denver’s New Big Three. Is it Nikola Jokic / MPJ / Aaron Gordon? Is Will Barton or Monte Morris in there instead? Regardless, that third player will need to show up. Jokic and MPJ will improve their chemistry with Michael Porter’s increased role with every game, but they’ll have to have that reliable third contributor.

Bench guards, show yourselves. PJ Dozier had a great game against the Miami Heat, but can he back it up against the Rockets? Houston’s bench isn’t filled with epic defenders, but Dozier hasn’t been the hallmark of consistency. He needs to continue to show that he can be counted on to play Denver into good possessions and not out of them, while Facu Campazzo looks to keep that bench group oriented with Monte Morris spending more time with the starters. These are the matchups that should help the team iron out the wrinkles in their stretch run, but it requires the players to step up and fight to be included in the long-term plans. Tonight is a sort of open audition, and I hope to see several Nuggets throw their hats in the ring for increased roles.

Prediction: 112-98, Denver.