Denver Nuggets 105, Houston Rockets 121: Three takeaways
The undermanned Nuggets couldn’t keep up with the Rockets in Houston, dropping a 121-105 result at the Toyota Center.
Nikola Jokić got his eighth triple-double of the season with 19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists to lead the Nuggets. The Rockets were paced by Russell Westbrook who had 28 points, 16 boards, eight assists and four steals. James Harden also contributed 27 points and five assists.
Denver got off to a promising start, building a 16-9 lead off a 9-0 run. Torrey Craig was the catalyst, scoring six of his team’s opening 13 points. The Nuggets began the first five minutes of the contest shooting 60 percent from the field but that would level off and the Rockets responded with a spurt of their own, outscoring the visitors 11-2 to take a 20-18 lead. That secured the momentum for the home team, with Houston taking a 35-28 lead into the second quarter.
The Rockets would continue to assert themselves in the second quarter thanks to a dominant eight-minute stretch by James Harden. Denver would only limit Houston’s star guard to three shot attempts, but it couldn’t contain him from getting to the line. Harden took nine free throws in the second quarter, hitting seven of them en route to a 10-point quarter. The Nuggets would enter halftime trailing 60-43.
Denver attempted to rally in the third quarter, with Craig cutting the deficit to 62-48 off a three-pointer at the 10:34 mark. Despite those efforts, the Rockets wouldn’t be deterred as they collected nine offensive rebounds and built a 22-point advantage. In the fourth quarter, the Rockets would take their largest lead of the game at 24 thanks to five-straight 3-pointers. With four minutes remaining and the game out of hand, Malone cleared his bench, giving minutes to Vlatko Čančar and Jarred Vanderbilt.
"As I told our players, I can't ask them anything other than go out there and play hard and compete. I thought for the most part tonight, as an undermanned team, we went out and did that," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the game.
The Nuggets will look to regroup when they travel to New Orleans to face Zion Williamson and the Pelicans on Friday night.
Here are the takeaways
Nuggets can’t overcome missing personnel
Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr., Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee all missed Wednesday’s contest. It’s a group that could be a starting lineup on some teams in the NBA and five players who are key members of the rotation. Between all five players, that’s 55 points and 22 rebounds per game.
The Nuggets fought valiantly in Houston, but the Rockets had a clear gap in available options on the court. Despite the outcome, Malone praised the guys who were on the court for their effort.
"We're not allowing our circumstances to take away from our positive energy," Malone said. "That's really important while we try to get healthy."
Three-pointers, free throw disparity prove costly
This contest was largely decided in the second quarter and free throws played a significant role. Entering the break, the Rockets shot 17 free throws, converting 14. The Nuggets made just three of their five attempts after the first 24 minutes of the game, with Jokić the only player to get to the line in the first half.
Denver’s inability to stop Harden and Westbrook from entering the paint along with their own struggles to penetrate the lane allowed the home team to control the game. Then came the team’s issues with defending the three-point line.
In the first quarter, the Nuggets limited the Rockets to shoot four threes and played a close 12 minutes against their opponents. From that point on, the Rockets proceeded to take 25 threes, converting on 10. Between the free throws and downtown shooting, Denver couldn’t contain the two primarily areas where Houston excels.
Valuable learning opportunity
With the Nuggets missing a quintet, several of the team’s young players got an opportunity to see some rare playing time including Jarred Vanderbilt, PJ Dozier and Vlatko Čančar.
Dozier played the most out of the trio, chipping a career-high 15 points on 58.3 shooting in 22 minutes of action. Čančar was the only Nugget to get a positive (+7) in the real plus/minus stat and impressed with some solid defense and a three pointer.