Let’s face it, the Houston Rockets are just a terrible matchup for Denver. The Nuggets could not stop Houston from getting to the foul line or making threes and dropped the matchup in Houston 125-113. The game was reminiscent of previous matchups with Clint Capela dunking all over Denver in the paint for a career-high 31, and Houston hitting 22 of 47 three pointers. James Harden had 6 of those and 32 points overall. Nikola Jokic had 24 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists in just 28 minutes, but Denver sitting him for most of the fourth quarters as they got down by 18 says all you need to know about the flow of the game despite 21 points from Monte Morris and 14 from Malik Beasley off the bench.

The Nuggets came out with a steal but a missed opportunity on a fast break and then a reluctant three point shot, both involving Torrey Craig. Jokic finally hit a bucket off his own miss for the first points of the game, but both teams were shaky early with bricks aplenty. A foul on an oop led to a Murray bucket but a PJ Tucker three made it 8-7 Houston early as Denver continued to turn the ball over with sloppy passes and poor choices. Denver started 3-for-9 with 4 turnovers, and Jokic was 1-for-5 before a deep three and a paint layup gave Denver the 12-10 lead. 

The two teams traded buckets for a couple of minutes as James Harden became more of a passer with Clint Capela finishing inside. Jokic would not be stopped on offense after that slow start, with 11 points and 6 boards in the first quarter, but a PJ Tucker three ball made it 22-20 Houston. The bench players came in and Malik Beasley made a two and a three, Monte Morris hit a couple of threes to match the fouls on three point shooters that Denver kept giving up and Denver took a 35-33 lead after one.

The Nuggets missed some threes to start the second quarter, but snagged a nifty transition bucket on a pass from Beasley to Morris. Plumlee took a finger in the eye, leading to an early Jokic return and a pair of nice passes on back-to-back plays for a 43-39 Denver lead. Capela made an appearance hurting Denver inside again, though, demolishing Denver as they double-teamed Harden and leading Houston to 51-47 lead. Capela scored 10 in a row off of easy dunks and free throws as the Rockets had a bit of a free throw advantage at that point.

Harden then got in the free throw game stretching the lead to 6, but PJ Tucker hit his fifth three-pointer in the first half with Denver needing some rebounding and hustle to keep it close. Harden hit a three over a sliding Murray, who then fouled The Beard for a 4-point play and a 64-54 lead for the Rockets. The turnover bug bit Denver again as Houston wrapped up a 14-3 run. Harden buried a three for 18 points in about two minutes of game time on just three made baskets, but Gary Harris hit a three at the buzzer to keep the Houston lead at just 10, 70-60. 

Paul Millsap hit a paint bucket to open the third quarter scoring, then Torrey Craig finished at the rim but Houston’s three point offense kept rolling. Denver couldn’t buy a foul call, with Millsap getting hit on more than one occasion with no whistle. Denver kept the deficit to 10 with 5 minutes gone but Harden’s three made it 79-66. Murray and Jokic threw in a couple of buckets and Beasley hit a three to close to 85-78. Houston’s three point barrage continued, though, and Denver’s twos were not enough. The deficit ballooned to 14 behind Houston’s ridiculously efficient shot selection:

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Denver’s bench fought back with Harden on the bench though, and behind Monte Morris and a pair of made free throws from Mason Plumlee somehow closed to 96-89 after three. 

The Rockets naturally opened the final frame with a three, answered by Juancho Hernangomez, answered in return by a Harden three over Plumlee. The Nuggets cut the lead to 6 but then took several poor shots in a row and Houston pumped the lead back to double digits and Gary Harris left with what appeared to be a nagging leg issue. Inexplicably the Nuggets left Jokic on the bench until the lead was 13 again, perhaps saving him for tomorrow’s game, but then brought him back in to finish. PJ Tucker buried his seventh three pointer of the game at the five minute mark for a 114-100 lead, followed by James Harden’s sixth three pointer as Denver suffered a chest full of daggers in the closing minutes.

Jokic left the game again as quickly as he entered it and Denver’s hopes went with him, conceding down the stretch. The bench did their job in keeping it close, but all night close felt like “nowhere near enough” and Denver lost 125-113.

Final Thoughts

  • These are the games that Nikola Jokic needs for playoff prep. The double teams. The swallowed whistles. Teams hounding him for turnovers and to try to frustrate him. He had 15 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists in the first half, but also 7 turnovers and no free throws. Denver had a very mediocre night and got blown out from the stripe and beyond the arc tonight, but if Denver runs into Houston in the playoffs – or teams that can mimic their approach – the Nuggets will struggle. Jokic struggled with his shot and turnovers early but came back strong. Every time he faces this kind of pressure it’s a good learning experience if not necessarily a moral victory. In the long view he needs this, as does Denver.
  • Denver also needs to iron out their rotation issues. Of course, this gets harder when you see Gary Harris on the bench in the fourth quarter holding an ice pack on his leg, sitting next to Will Barton. But our own Ryan Blackburn said it best after the game:

It’s not just about making those shots. Every team plays Torrey Craig as a non-shooter even when his shot IS going in (which it was not tonight). That creates issues with narrowed passing lanes and easier double teams on Jokic. Trey Lyles is shooting 24% from three on the year, and Juancho Hernangomez seems to be having a crisis of confidence with his shot at the moment (or perhaps just tired legs after playing so many consistent minutes recently).

Denver has a certain style: their pace is slow but their efficiency is extremely high. Denver passes and cuts and works for the right shots. Tonight they took a lot of inefficient shots, turned the ball over a bunch and couldn’t buy buckets from deep. Some nights it’s just not your night, and it’s no crime to lose to Houston.

But if ever there was a night for everyone involved to take notes and use it as a learning experience for future matchups, it’s this one.

On to Miami.