DENVER, CO - FEBRUARY 25: Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets handles the ball against the Houston Rockets on February 25, 2018 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Nuggets Rally Late, but Rockets Grab 119-114 Victory

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

The Nuggets were looking for something to grasp onto, and they may have found some things to file away that work if Houston were to pop up as a playoffs opponent. After Sunday night’s 119-114 loss to the Rockets at the Pepsi Center, Houston remained in the top spot in the Western Conference and the Nuggets fell from sixth to eighth, which would match the two teams up if things stayed that way after the final six weeks of the season.

“I loved how hard we played,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “But we just have to play smarter if we want to beat the best team in the NBA.”

What did the Nuggets find? Pressure works. When the Rockets were flying around the court with little resistance, or creating the matchups they wanted with hard screens, the Nuggets struggled to stop them. Houston jumped out to leads of 15-5 and 30-17, eventually taking a 38-25 lead after the first quarter.

Then, the Nuggets kicked up the pressure. Malik Beasley came off the bench and immediately raised the team’s energy level on the defensive end, and it was contagious. The Nuggets fed off of him and clawed their way back into the game. Pressure on the basketball and quickly collapsing on Houston’s ball handlers when they got into the paint was key.

But the Rockets own the NBA’s best record for a reason, and they rode James Harden in order to get the game back under their control. He scored 14 straight points at one point early on, and was deadly at drawing fouls and then converting the free throws. Harden was 13-of-16 from the charity stripe, which accounted for a large chunk of his game-high 41 points.

Still, the Nuggets didn’t fold.

Will Barton led a Nuggets team that pressed the paint in the second half. They were persistent about getting into the lane and putting pressure on the Rockets’ interior defense. It paid dividends as the Nuggets racked up 68 points in the paint and generated a ton of high percentage shots that kept them in contact.

And when Nikola Jokić made a layup with 2:12 left in the game, the Nuggets found themselves down just four, 110-106. But they could get no closer, as the Rockets made the plays necessary to hold off the hard-charging Nuggets.

“That game could have gotten out of hand a few times so I applaud our effort,” Malone said. “Obviously, the first two times we played that team, the game was not even close. So, to make it a game and fight all the way to the end was great to see.”

Jokić earned all of his 21 points, going 7-of-18 from the field, and nearly had a fourth straight triple double with 14 rebounds and eight assists as well. Barton led the Nuggets with 25 points on 10-of-15 shooting, and added seven rebounds, six assists and three steals. Jamal Murray had 19 points and made three 3-pointers.

The Nuggets’ four-game win streak was snapped and the Rockets collected their seventh straight win in the series. The Nuggets, meanwhile, are two games ahead of the L.A. Clippers, who sit just outside of a playoff spot.

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.