The Denver Nuggets came in to their home arena and lost a game 5 on 8 tonight. Nikola Jokic dealt with foul trouble all night managing just 16 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists in 22 foul-filled minutes. James Harden put up a 40 point triple double, and while the refs didn’t do Denver any favors, Denver missed 11 free throws tonight. Will Barton was sort of (completely) terrible after a career performance a couple nights ago, and Denver couldn’t make up for it.

The Nuggets started Jameer Nelson, Gary Harris, Juancho Hernangomez, Mason Plumlee, and Nikola Jokic against the Rockets, who started their normal group. With Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler out, the Nuggets were forced to play big against the team with the highest three point shooting volume.

The game started with a back-and-forth affair of James Harden pick and rolls that usually ended in a Harden miss or a roll man finishing at the rim. Denver’s offense was very fragmented, but Hernangomez bailed Denver out with 8 quick points. The referees really decided that Jokic wasn’t going to be the guy to help Denver in this game and sent him to the bench with questionable foul calls.

As the bench players started filing in, the game began to settle down. Nelson distributed nicely, while Will Barton, Jamal Murray, and Kenneth Faried took advantage. Denver worked their way back into a tie with Houston at 26 to end the first quarter.

Murray opened up the second quarter scoring with a three pointer, but beyond that, there was very little scoring to begin the period. Plumlee had a nice rejection and multiple sequences defensively though. At the 8:44 mark in the quarter, Murray picked up his third foul, which wouldn’t be a big deal if Nelson hadn’t already been on the floor for 14 of the first 15 minutes. When Jokic came back in, Denver started operating more efficiently all-around on offense. The defense continued to struggle with him out there, but Denver quickly regained the lead after a short stretch.

At this point, Jokic picked up his third foul and went back to the bench. Plumlee came in where he left off though and played some solid defense all around. He played the glue guy role very well during this stretch, picking up the Rockets guards defensively and operating as a pivot point for the Nuggets guards to operate around at the elbow. Nelson, all 22 minutes of him in the first half, was having a solid showing offensively, dishing out nine assists and running the show for Denver with Jokic sitting. The Nuggets finished the half on a high note, up 56-51 over the struggling Rockets.

Jokic picked up his fourth foul on an egregious flop by Ryan Anderson to start the third quarter, and the entire building was fuming after the call.

The refereeing in this game was just absurd, but it’s not the first time Denver has had to deal with that this year. The Nuggets really struggled to adjust without a scorer though, as through the first seven minutes of the quarter, Denver scored just six points. The Nuggets kept fighting hard though, and they stuck with the Rockets through a tough stretch until Harden took over. He scored 16 straight points to give Houston an 80-74 lead to end the third quarter.

The Nuggets started the fourth quarter with Jokic on the floor, and he picked up his fifth foul quickly. Malone left him in the game though, and Jokic hit an And-1 to reward the good faith. Next possession, Denver came to the floor with Jokic matched up on Eric Gordon, but they couldn’t get him the ball and turned it over, leading to a basket on the other end.

Denver put out a Nelson-Murray-Harris-Hernangomez-Jokic lineup and it did a nice job of keeping the game close. Good defensive plays by Murray and some clutch baskets from Murray, Jokic, and Nelson brought the Nuggets within two points of Houston with 2:53 remaining. The Rockets extended the lead to six for a brief stretch, but Denver knocked it back down to three after a clutch offensive rebound and put back by Jokic. Harris forced a rare Harden miss, and Barton was fouled on a three, making two shots and cutting the deficit to one. The Nuggets sent Nene to the line after an offensive rebound, who made one of two. After that, Barton missed two shots to close the game, Harden made two free throws, and that was the game, with the nuggets losing 109-105.

Three Takeaways

James Harden is freaking good

Yeah, he gets lots of calls his way, but he could have got even more tonight. Harden posted a final stat line of 40 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists on 11/23 shooting. This guy is an MVP candidate for a reason. He would be my MVP this season. The way he controls and orchestrates for a team that wins a lot of games is incredible.

Will Barton and Jamal Murray were absolutely awful

Look, Malone will get some hate for leaving Nelson in as many minutes as he did, and some of it is justified. That being said, the Nuggets’ ball handling guards played like crap for most of the night…except Jameer Nelson. Murray and Barton finished a combined 6/26 shooting with 22 points and 4 turnovers. Barton especially was dismal, but if neither of those two perform well, and Jokic is in foul trouble, then there’s little opportunity for Malone to remove Nelson, who gutted out a solid performance.

Refs were struggling in this one

The first half was the Nikola Jokic foul fest. The entire third quarter was laughable. The Nuggets had an absurd amount of fouls called on them during this game, and while the Rockets are a good team and Harden a good player, it was still absurd. Trevor Ariza hacked Jokic’s elbow in the clutch that wasn’t called, Beverley threw Harris out of bounds, and many other calls were missed in the waning seconds. Overall, the Nuggets should have been able to extend their lead after halftime, but the sheer amount of calls broke up the game and let the team on a back-to-back rest. I expect Malone to put in a call to the league office sometime soon.

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