Preview: Denver Nuggets continue road trip against the Rockets

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

Following a tough, grind-it-out victory in Minnesota on Monday, the Denver Nuggets will look to build some momentum in Houston Wednesday when they take on the Rockets. Wednesday’s game marks the second of a three-game road trip that wraps up on Friday in New Orleans.

Denver (30-13) continues to navigate injuries to several key starters. While Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap have missed time over the past week, the Nuggets have received quality and timely contributions from the second unit, most notably Michael Porter Jr., Malik Beasley and Mason Plumlee.

Houston (26-16) has struggled recently and is on a four-game losing streak following their loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday, a game in which the Rockets led by 17 points in the second half. James Harden (31.4 points per game on 35.8 percent shooting from the field and 26.2 percent on 3-pointers) has gone cold in January, which has held back Houston’s elite offense in recent weeks.

The two teams have split the past four meetings in the series, though Houston owns an 8-2 edge over the past 10 contests dating back to the 2016-17 season.

Here are three keys to Wednesday’s showdown:

Defending the 3-point line

This is a prerequisite when it comes to facing the Rockets, who continue to push the boundaries on offense by attempting 44.2 3-pointers per game. Three-point shooting was a key difference in the first two meetings this season, as Houston shot just 31.6 percent in Denver back in November (a Nuggets victory) and 47.1 percent in Houston on New Year’s Eve (a Rockets victory).

Denver continues to defend the 3-point line well as it ranks second in opponent 3-point percentage this season. Hard closeouts and running the Rockets off of the 3-point line will be key on Wednesday, especially with Houston’s avoidance of the mid-range.

Exploit the boards

An area in which Denver should hold a comfortable edge against Houston is on the glass. On the season, the Nuggets rank fourth in offensive-rebound percentage and 13th in defensive rebound percentage. Conversely, Houston ranks just 16th and 20th in those respective categories, opening up a weakness for the Nuggets to attack.

While Russell Westbrook is an impressive rebounder at the guard position and Clint Capela can be an overwhelming presence, Houston’s depth behind them isn’t strong on the boards, while Denver boasts several quality rebounders up-and-down the roster, including Porter Jr. and Plumlee on the second unit. If the Nuggets can control the boards, it will go a long way in giving them a chance on the road.

Attack the basket and find open shooters

Houston’s 15th-ranked defense can be attacked in several key areas, most notably around the basket and beyond the arc. The Rockets are league average in their opponent’s frequency of shots around the rim and 21st in opponent 3-point attempt frequency.

Although opponents have struggled to convert on threes against Houston, they certainly haven’t around the basket, as the Rockets rank 22nd in opponent field-goal percentage around the rim. Given Denver’s improved 3-point shooting on the road (37.5 percent compared to 31.9 percent at Pepsi Center), finding open shooters will be key on Wednesday.

Although the Nuggets don’t get to the basket often (they rank 17th in their frequency of shots attempted in that area), they convert at a high rate (64.7 percent, good for sixth in the league).

Projected starters: Monte Morris, Will Barton III, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, Nikola Jokić

Wednesday’s game will tip at 6 p.m. MT and will air on Altitude (Radio: 92.5FM).

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