The Denver Nuggets were embarrassed by the Houston Rockets the last two times the teams played. In the season finale between the two of them the game was as much about respect as it was about a crucial game late in the season. Despite falling behind early the Nuggets made a spirited effort to get back into the game and got close late. However, James Harden was simply too much on his way to a huge night scoring which would offset the efforts of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Will Barton. The Nuggets made a game of it, but the Rockets would still end up with the win.

The Nuggets started out cold from the floor while the Rockets were using a barrage of three pointers to build an early lead. After a Denver timeout, the Nuggets tightened up their defense to create some turnovers but Houston maintained a lead just below double digits largely due to the fact that Denver simply could not convert on good looks. The Nuggets went to their bench + Murray to close out the first which was not effective in stopping Harden at all. Devin Harris was called for three fouls, Harden scored seventeen points in the first quarter and the Nuggets trailed by thirteen.

The Nuggets bench opened the second quarter keeping pace with the Rockets. Where they may have lacked in coordination, they made it up with hustle. Mason Plumlee in particular was playing his ass off. First with a Jokic like dime, then with a steal, then forcing Clint Capela into a turnover and then finishing an alley oop. Between Plumlee and Will Barton they flipped the momentum and trimmed Houston’s lead down to seven. Coach Mike D’Antoni called a timeout and re-inserted Chris Paul and Harden but Denver’s bench was up to the task and kept the lead to just seven. Immediately after the Nuggets starters checked in, Harden baited Barton into a 4-point play (he wouldn’t convert…ball don’t lie) to push Houston’s lead back to ten. Houston executed a masterfully skilled and entertaining gameplan of attempting to draw a foul whenever the ball was in play. Definitely a homage to the game of basketball and how it was intended to be played. Jokic figured when in Rome and drew a couple fouls of his own at the very end of the half but the Nuggets still trailed 66-52 at the break.

The Nuggets starters came out strong so despite some more Harden free throws, Denver had trimmed the lead back down to eight through the first three minutes of the third quarter. Harden continued to draw fouls for Houston and made a point to try and get Jokic switched onto him. The Nuggets starters hung tough with Houston, aided by Jokic’s passing and Murray’s scoring, but when the reserves started to check in the Rockets lead was still fourteen. Jokic was just outmatched on defense, as any center would be if he continuously was getting switched onto Harden. With about three minutes left Mbah a Moute blew by him and drew a foul at the rim which forced coach Malone to take a timeout and insert Plumlee. The Nuggets bench would make sure they won the quarter but Denver still trailed by thirteen after three.

Devin Harris opened the fourth quarter with a page out of Houston’s book, pump faking his way into a four point opportunity (which he would convert). Houston would get on a mini run behind Paul which forced coach Malone to take a second timeout early in the fourth quarter. The Nuggets bench kept trying to make a push but the Rockets kept responding with buckets of their own. D’Antoni went back to his starters first with about eight minutes to go before Malone went to his a minute later with the Nuggets still down by fourteen. They quickly went on a mini 5-0 run to bring Denver back within nine. The starters were making a last stand and started to aggressively attack the rim. They kept pushing and a Barton free throw got them within six with just over three minutes to go. Jokic made a pair of buckets to offset a Paul mid range jumper to get Denver within four before Harden was gifted two free throws on a clean Barton block. Murray would turn the ball over and Harden would hit a dagger that put Denver down by eight. The Nuggets weren’t going without a fight though. Murray hit a layup, Paul traveled and Jokic got to the free throw line. He would convert but the Rockets got the inbound to Joe Johnson who converted his free throws and from there Paul was able to ice out the game with a few more from the charity stripe. Rockets win 119-114.

Best matchup: James Harden vs Nikola Jokic

The Rockets no doubt had “switch Jokic onto Harden” in big bold letters in their gameplan tonight. There was even one moment where Houston had already worked an advantage by getting Jokic switched onto Chris Paul but Harden barked repeatedly at Paul until he passed the ball. Harden then immediately ran another screen to get Jokic switched onto him. In that instance Nikola would be up to the task but far too many times tonight Denver allowed that mismatch to happen and got burnt by it. On the offensive end it was another stellar showing for the Joker and on plenty of nights that’s going to be enough, but when it comes down to the top competition, the Nuggets will have to adjust their gameplan to avoid that weakness.

Main thing I noticed: the bench played well

Plumlee and Malik Beasley in particular gave the Nuggets solid minutes off the bench tonight. Plumlee had a big sequence in the second quarter where he impacted the game on both ends of the court and played well in the fourth quarter as well. Meanwhile Beasley was solid throughout. He hit a couple of clutch threes and also played active defense. Trey Lyles had another efficient night scoring off the bench as well. Really the only guy in the reserve unit who didn’t play great was Devin Harris who fell victim to a lot of Harden shenanigans and also struggled with his shooting stroke early. He did have a couple of buckets later on though. All in all, a stellar night for the bench.

Closing thought: I don’t like Houston basketball

Yep, I’m going to gripe about James Harden’s game. I hate how he gets his points even if it is in a way brilliant. It’s 100% within the rules and it’s 100% effective but man is it ugly to watch and there is no way you can convince me it’s within the intent of the game. What’s worse is it seems to rub off on everyone, including the opposing team. After Harden had a string of fouls go his way in the second quarter suddenly Jokic was trying to do the same thing on the other end. Later in the game when Harris drew a foul for a four-point play you could even see him grin as if he knew he was copying what Houston does. It just doesn’t make for fun basketball viewing, I don’t know, maybe I’m just getting old.

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Locked On Nuggets podcast – Recap and Notes on the game