Nuggets Fourth Quarter Comeback Falls Short Against Rockets
Sooner or later, the Nuggets were going to have to pass one specific test:
What happens if Nikola Jokić has heavy foul trouble?
They hadn’t necessarily had to face that, certainly not since the big man had established himself as the Nuggets’ lead player and one of the best big men in the NBA. But on Saturday night at the Pepsi Center, Jokić found the fouls too difficult to avoid. He was in and out of the game after short stints as coach Michael Malone tried to protect him and save Jokić for when they needed him most. It was up to the remainder of his teammates to pick up the slack.
They only could to an extent.
The Rockets won 109-105 in the first of two consecutive games these teams will play in a three-day span. Yes, James Harden played every bit the role of a star player, scoring 27 of his game-high 40 points in the second half. He recorded his 18th triple-double of the season with 40 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. But it was the contributions of his teammates, especially an old friend of the Nuggets franchise – Nene – that put the Rockets over the top. He routinely crashed the offensive boards to finish with 14 points and seven rebounds in a reserve role.
The Nuggets didn’t go quietly. They were within one point with under a minute to play. But the Rockets made the plays necessary to win. As a result, the Nuggets four-game win streak was snapped, and they lost a full game to Portland – which won on Saturday – off their cushion in the race for the eighth playoff spot.
Jokić played on 22 minutes in the end, and though he was his usual efficient self – 16 points, 5 rebounds, four assists – the Nuggets needed more of him to pull out a victory.
The flow: Neither team started off shooting well from the field. The Nuggets were 5-of-13 to star. Meanwhile, the Rockets were 5-of-12 at the start. But that quickly changed as the pace quickened and shooters started finding the bottom of the net. The Nuggets made five of their last 10 shots of the first, but had to fight through turnovers (6) and fouls to end the first tied at 26. The 3-point line was a big help to the Nuggets, who nailed 4-of-7 attempts while the Rockets made just one of their eight tries.
The Nuggets struck a more aggressive stance in the second quarter, getting to the rim more, getting fouled more and getting to the free throw line. Nikola Jokić picked up his third foul in the period, so the Nuggets had to get it figured out without their best player. And they did. They relied on a collective scoring effort, and that got them to 30 points in the quarter. Defensively, the held the Rockets down for a while, but Houston figured things out offensively to cut an eight-point deficit to five at halftime.
The Rockets turned up the juice in the third quarter, raising the intensity on defense first, and then pushing the pace on offense even more. The Nuggets struggled to keep up as Houston sprinted out to a 17-6 start. But this was about James Harden. It was all Harden, all the time as the Houston star scored 18 points, pushing his point total to 31 for the game at that point. Houston, which had missed 10 straight 3-pointers at one point also started to find the range from deep, hitting three in the period. The Nuggets entered the fourth down six.
The Rockets pushed the lead to eight before the Nuggets dug in defensively themselves and rallied. A 13-7 run pulled the Nuggets two within two at 95-93 with 5:10 left to play. The Nuggets cut the lead to one on Will Barton’s free throws with 59 seconds left. But they could never quite get over the hump. Barton had a chance to tie the game, but missed a floater with five seconds to play. Harden then sealed the game with two free throws.
Deciding run: The Rockets 17-4 run in the third quarter took them from down seven to up six with just over four minutes to play.
What it means: The Portland Trail Blazers won at Atlanta earlier in the day, so the Nuggets’ task was clear: Win, or lose a full game in the standings. They are now 1 ½ games ahead for the eighth spot.
Nuggets standouts: Nikola Jokić had 16 points and five rebounds. Juancho Hernangomez had 00 points. Gary Harris finished with 17 points. Jameer Nelson had a double-double of 15 points and 11 assists, and Kenneth Faried scored 11 points with eight rebounds.
Stat of the game: 60: The Rockets scored 60 points in the paint, besting the Nuggets by 12 points in the category.
Next: The Nuggets and Rockets do it all over again with a game on Monday at the Toyota Center in Houston at 7 p.m.