Denver Nuggets 117, Houston Rockets 110: Three takeaways

by Alex Labidou Staff Writer

The Nuggets and Rockets learned about the helicopter crash that took the life of NBA Legend Kobe Bryant and four other passengers an hour before tipoff. Despite the somber pregame setting, the Nuggets and Rockets competed in a hard-fought 117-110 win for Denver. 

"It affected all of us," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the game. "When you are hit with news like that it kind of hits you back. That was one of my challenges and I said that to the players, we have to find a way to get past that. We have to find a way to go out there and do our jobs. I give our guys credit because they were able to do that."

Nikola Jokić led the Nuggets with a triple-double, scoring 24 points and adding 12 boards and 11 dimes. Russell Westbrook paced the Rockets with 32 points and seven assists. 

Houston used its three-point shooting to get off to a strong start against Denver, building a nine-point advantage after the opening 12 minutes. With James Harden out with an injury, Eric Gordon and Ben McLemore picked up some of the slack, combining for 15 points on 3-of-6 shooting. Jerami Grant had the hot hand for the Nuggets in the opening quarter, hitting two three-point shots and going a perfect 3 of 3 to score nine points. 

Denver would rally in the second quarter, cutting Houston’s advantage to just 55-54 after a 10-4 run. Grant would add another eight points while Jokić started to build momentum. The Nuggets center flashed some rare athleticism, throwing down two thunderous slams throughout the quarter. Jokić scored 10 points on 5 of 6 shooting. 

The Nuggets would regain the lead early in the third quarter, thanks to Gary Harris finding Grant for a close-range bucket. Midway through the third quarter, Malone called a successful coaches challenge that overturned an offensive foul called on Will Barton III. The Nuggets withstood a 7-3 run by the Rockets thanks to an impressive behind the back lay-in from Monte Morris. Denver would enter the final 12 minutes of the game with a 90-89 lead. 

Denver asserted itself in the fourth quarter, going on a 15-8 run to take a 105-97 lead. Monte Morris came alive in the clutch, hitting two three pointers and dishing out two dimes to help his team take its biggest lead of the game. Torrey Craig would put on a bowtie on the contest with an incredible two-handed slam at the 4:50 mark that made the Pepsi Center crowd erupt. 

The Nuggets secure a 2-2 season series against the Rockets, a result that could be valuable in the fight for playoff positions during the regular season. 

"It's a huge win, the one thing we talked about is playoff implications are on the line. We do not want to lose the season series," Malone said. "To end the season series 2-2 is great."

Here are the takeaways

Nuggets frontcourt dominates 

The Nuggets outscored the Rockets 54-46 in points in the paint and Nikola Jokić and Grant were a significant reason why. 

Grant had a season-high 25 points for the home team, showing a dazzling array of inside and outside scoring – going 3 of 3 from behind the arc. He was also disruptive against Houston on the other end, with his solo block denying Westbrook when it appeared the visitors were making a late rally in the fourth quarter. 

Jokić continued his recent surge with another all-around dominant showing for the Nuggets. Despite using several players to defend him, the Rockets couldn’t slow Jokić in the low post. The Serbian converted six of his nine made field goals at the rim Sunday. 

Denver’s defense steps up

When the first quarter came to an end, it appeared as if the Rockets would pull away due to their precision from behind the arc. The team shot a sizzling 57.1 percent from the floor and hit five of its 11 attempts from downtown. It’s a formula that has plagued the Nuggets in their last two losses to the Rockets as Houston hit a combined 29 threes in those outings. The Nuggets would adjust this time, and it was the turning point of the contest. 

In the second quarter, Denver held Houston to 1 of 9 from downtown and the visitors shot just 7 of 24 from the field. The team was particularly effective in limiting Eric Gordon, who had torched the Nuggets in the previous matchups this season. Malone warned about the reserve guard’s impact prior to Sunday’s game with Gordon averaging 18.5 points per game and shooting 69.2 percent from downtown against Denver this season. 

In the season series finale, Gordon shot just 2 of 10 from downtown, executing Malone and his coaching staff’s game plan to perfection. The team also forced Westbrook into 10 turnovers. 

Bench shows out

Porter Jr. and Morris scored 17 each, helping lead a Nuggets’ second unit that vastly outplayed the opposition’s bench, outscoring the group 44-30. After combining for 15 points in the first half, the pair came alive in the second half and helped the Nuggets secure the result. 

Porter Jr.’s seven points in the third quarter shifted the momentum towards the Nuggets with his three-pointer giving the team a 80-75 lead at the 5:52 mark.

"I thought Monte Morris was phenomenal tonight, his play off the bench [was great]," Malone said.


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