Preview: Denver Nuggets host streaking Rockets in early-season test

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

There are only four teams that currently own a better record than the Denver Nuggets. Two of those squads will be in Pepsi Center this week, as Denver kicks off a four-game homestand Wednesday with a matchup against the surging Houston Rockets. Friday, the Nuggets face the Boston Celtics, who are at the top of the Eastern Conference.

Denver (9-3) played perhaps its most complete game of the season Sunday against the Memphis Grizzlies. A 24-4 run in the second quarter essentially put the game to bed by halftime, which allowed key starters to rest down the stretch of the game. Jamal Murray scored a season-high 39 points in the win, while Paul Millsap continued his effective play on both ends of the floor.

Now, the Nuggets must raise their play to another level when Houston and Boston come to town. The Rockets (11-3) have won their last eight games and have found a rhythm despite missing several key players in recent games. Eric Gordon will continue to be out while he recovers from knee surgery, while Houston saw Clint Capela return to the lineup on Monday.

Of course, all eyes will be on James Harden and Russell Westbrook, one of the newly formed dynamic duos in the NBA. Harden has somehow improved on his 36.1 points per game scoring average from a season ago, as he is now averaging 39.2 points, 7.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game. Harden’s stepback jumper, sweet handles and impressive playmaking have made him one of, if not the most unstoppable offensive forces in the league.

Houston has had plenty of success against Denver in recent seasons, as the Nuggets are just 4-10 against the Rockets since Michael Malone took over as head coach in the 2015-16 campaign.

Here are some keys to Wednesday’s matchup:

Can Harden be slowed down?

Gary Harris will have a tough challenge Wednesday night, as he will look to limit Harden’s effectiveness from beyond the arc and in the pick-and-roll. Over the last 10 games, Harden has averaged 40.2 points, 7.1 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game and has knocked down 38.4 percent of his 3-pointers (he attempts 14.3 shots from beyond the arc on the season).

"He (Harden) is a hell of a player," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said following practice on Tuesday. "Not one player can guard him one-on-one. You have to do it as a group and hope that their other players are not hitting shots at a high level."

In four games against the Nuggets last season, Harden’s scoring was limited to 30 points per game, but he was able to find success with his playmaking, as he averaged 10 assists per game in those matchups. When defending a player like Harden, it often comes down to staying home on shooters, limiting Capela’s effectiveness above the rim and putting pressure on Harden when he is isolating on the perimeter.

Westbrook has altered Houston’s style of play

In the two prior seasons, Denver has had to deal with Chris Paul as Harden’s sidekick. However, the Rockets made a bold trade in the offseason that saw them send Paul to Oklahoma City (along with several first-round draft picks) in exchange for Westbrook.

Westbrook has taken a backseat to Harden’s brilliance early in the season, but he is still a force to be reckoned with. The 2017 MVP is averaging 21.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game this season, but perhaps more importantly, he has fundamentally changed the way Houston plays.

Prior to Westbrook’s arrival, Houston looked to slow down the pace and rely on Harden and Paul to breakdown defenses in the half court. However, Westbrook is often at his best in transition, as he looks to grab a defensive rebound and race to the other end of the court for an easy basket or pass to an open teammate. As a result, the Rockets are playing at the third-highest pace this season, while much has been made of Denver’s 30th-ranked pace of play on the year.

"It's definitely a task (limiting Harden and Westbrook)," Jerami Grant said on Tuesday. "The coaching staff has put in a gameplan and we'll see if it works. If it doesn't, we'll make some adjustments."

Two teams winning in different ways

While both Houston and Denver have gotten off to impressive starts this season, they have been doing it in nearly opposite fashion. The Rockets currently own the league’s second-ranked offense and 15th-ranked defense, while the Nuggets are winning behind their eighth-ranked defense, which has held up their 17th-ranked offense.

Houston’s offense is of course, predicated on shots around the rim and from beyond the arc. Although the Rockets are a below-average offensive rebounding team, they are number one in free throw rate, rarely turn the ball over (10th in turnover percentage) and attempt over 46 3-pointers per game.

On the defensive end, a slow start held back the Rockets during their 3-3 start to the season. They are essentially average in three of the four defensive four factors (opponent effective field goal percentage, opponent turnover percentage and opponent offensive rebound percentage). Where Houston thrives on that end of the floor is their ability to keep opponents off the charity stripe (the Rockets rank sixth in opponent free throw rate).

It should be noted that over the past two weeks, Houston actually owns the second-ranked defensive rating in the league, which is higher than Denver’s mark during that stretch. The Rockets appear to have found a groove on both ends of the floor during their winning streak.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton III, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokić

Wednesday’s game will tip-off at 7 p.m. MT and will air on Altitude TV (Radio: KKSE 92.5 FM).

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