The Denver Nuggets were well rested after having three days off. However, they ran into a red hot Houston Rockets team who was up to the challenge of playing the defending champs. The Nuggets got ahead early but then squandered their lead in the fourth quarter in a grind it out game. They took Houston all the way to the final horn but couldn’t get the ball inbounded with fourteen seconds and ultimately lose 107-104. Nikola Jokic had a monstrous triple-double, Michael Porter Jr came to play as well but the bench doomed Denver in the end. Houston powers to a victory behind Alperen Sengun and Fred VanVleet to win six straight.

The Nuggets got a quick couple baskets early and started with tough defense. The Rockets responded through Sengun to take the lead briefly. Jokic did most of the damage on Denver’s end while Dillon Brooks and Sengun were scoring for Houston and that kept the game going back and forth. Denver held a small lead when Michael Malone started going to the reserves in the first quarter with about four minutes left. He put Jokic with Colin Gillespie, Julian Strawther, Christian Braun and Peyton Watson. Joker took over the final two minutes and pushed Denver’s lead to nine when Malone subbed him out for Zeke Nnaji (full bench alert) with 40 seconds to go. The first quarter finished with Denver leading 30-23.

Reggie Jackson checked back in so the Nuggets had a pseudo starter on the court but that unit struggled to score early in the second quarter. They went over two minutes without a single point forcing Malone into an early timeout. Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon checked back in but the offense still stagnated. The full starting unit was back in at the eight and a half minute mark with the Nuggets still yet to score a point in the quarter. Jokic restored order, immediately getting Denver on the board with a dime to Gordon. Porter also got going and the Nuggets lead, which was down to one, grew back to a healthy seven. Houston responded behind VanVleet and Sengun to bring it back within two with just under two minutes to go. Jokic controlled things down the stretch but Denver couldn’t pull away and led by just four at half time.

The Nuggets were once again cold to open the quarter with just a Porter three pointer in the first three minutes of the third. Jabari Smith Jr. meanwhile was cleaning up on the offensive glass. Denver held off Houston as the quarter progressed but wasn’t putting any distance between them and the Rockets. Denver’s defense was up to the task of making up for a bunch of poor shooting and kept the Nuggets in front halfway through the quarter. A pair of threes from Gordon and Jackson quickly got the lead up to seven shortly thereafter, but Houston once again would not let Denver grow their lead. They played tight defense and the game was becoming a grind it out affair. With the baskets hard to come by for both teams it was Denver up 74-69 when Jokic checked out with just under two minutes left in the quarter. The bench plus Gordon lineup got a Gillespie jumper just before the buzzer but let Houston climb back within two. Denver lead 76-74 headed into the fourth quarter.

Houston opened the fourth with a 5-0 run to take the lead but MPJ was playing hard on both ends and quickly got it back for Denver. It didn’t last with the momentum swinging back and forth with every possession. The Nuggets started going cold from the floor again and Houston hit some timely threes. VanVleet got hot to get Houston their biggest lead of the game. Denver simply couldn’t buy a bucket and were in danger of letting this one get away. Malone brought back in all the starters but they were just as cold. Jeff Green knocked down a three to put Houston ahead ten with just under five minutes to go and it was officially time to panic. The Nuggets finally found some life a couple minutes later with a couple buckets and stops and pulled within six. Uncle Jeff got his revenge though, first with some free throws and then with what felt like a dagger three to put Houston back up nine with under two to play. Denver wouldn’t quit and got a 5-0 run behind Jackson to trim the lead to four and then Jokic hit a three to get it to one with sixteen seconds to play. VanVleet cashed both free throws on the other end but Denver still had fourteen seconds and trailed by only three. Sadly, they couldn’t get the ball inbounded and Houston ultimately ices it away at the free throw line. Rockets win 107-104.

Best matchup: Nikola Jokic vs Alperen Sengun

Nov 12, 2023; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Rockets center Alperen Sengun (28) shoots against Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) in the first quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The key matchup from the preview lived up to the hype tonight. Jokic, who somehow continues to get better, was absolutely dominant. He tallied thirty-six points, twenty-one rebounds and eleven assists in a losing effort.  His counterpart Sengun wasn’t as prolific but was a consistent force for Houston with 23/8/5 himself. You can see why he gets comparisons to Jokic and if he can ever develop a shot like Nikola has he’ll really unlock his game. In the end though he didn’t need to do anymore than he did tonight and while losing the matchup, won the game and that’s all that really matters.

The bench is a problem, and not in a good way

Every starter save for Jackson was a plus tonight. I made a point when writing this recap to point out the lead when Jokic stepped off the court, every time that happened Denver’s offense cratered. Malone isn’t helping with full bench lineups and not staggering Porter with the bench in the first half to give them some scoring punch. Instead we get Jackson and four bench players or Gordon and four bench players as the best case scenario. That leaves one veteran to play with four guys all of whom have not cleared the 2000 minute mark in the league and don’t know how to initiate offense. Without Jamal Murray the Nuggets need to find some other way to get scoring from the bench unit and giving Strawther eight minutes a game while the bench degenerates to isos from Jackson and Gordon isn’t it.

The double dip defensive parlay hits early

KCP and Gordon got a steal and a block respectively in the first half so our thing to bet pays out early. Hopefully you threw some cash on it to take a little of the sting off of this loss.