Denver Nuggets 105, Houston Rockets 95: Three takeaways
The Denver Nuggets showcased why their defense could be on a championship-level after a dominant 105-95 victory over the Houston Rockets at Pepsi Center.
In arguably the biggest test of their credentials as a contender thus far in the 2019-20 season, the Nuggets proved they are worthy to be in the conversation. Containing the opposition has been the foundation of Denver’s 10-3 start and on Wednesday, Michael Malone’s team showed why it can be elite in that area. The team held the Rockets, who were previously on an eight-game win streak, to season-low 95 points, 24.5 off their league-leading average of 119.5 per game.
"This is only one game, we still have much work to do but they understand when we defend like this, we can beat anybody in the NBA," Malone said after the game.
Nikola Jokić sparked the Nuggets win with 27 points to go along with 12 rebounds and four assists. James Harden led the visiting Rockets with 27 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
The Nuggets showed their intent early on as they held the Rockets, the NBA’s leader in made threes per game, to just 1-of-7 shooting from behind the arc and scored 13 points off six turnovers in the first quarter. Denver also clicked offensively in the opening 12 minutes as Jokić, Will Barton III and Gary Harris combined for 19 points on 9-of-14 shooting. The Nuggets would hold the Rockets to just 43.9 percent shooting in the first half, including just 21.4 percent from deep.
In the second half, the Nuggets took a commanding grip on the game after allowing the Rockets to score just 44 points in the final 24 minutes. The team’s ball movement was also pivotal in securing its victory as it had 29 assists on 44 buckets.
The Nuggets are now seeking their fourth consecutive victory in the second game of their four-game homestand when they host the Celtics Friday.
Here are the three takeaways:
From Serbia with love
Jokić saved arguably his best all-around performance of the season for the Western Conference’s hottest team. Typical Nikola.
Whether it’s hitting back-to-back game-winners or completely taking over in the fourth quarter as he did against Portland in the season opener, Jokić continues to shine in clutch situations for the Nuggets.
The center poured in 22 of his 27 points in the first three quarters of the game and more impressively got back on track with his long-distance shooting – finishing 2 of 4 from downtown. His lone three-pointer in the third quarter proved back-breaking for the Rockets as it pushed the home team’s advantage to 75-62.
"It was really quiet, I don't even remember [it]," Jokić joked after the game. "It was a quiet 27."
Prior to the game against Houston, Jokić shot just 24.1 percent from on three-point attempts. If he can deliver more efficiency from that area, it opens up another wrinkle for the Nuggets offense.
The Nuggets were able to hold the visitors to just 85 points thanks to two simple strategies on defense: Stay on your feet and don’t foul. It was the first time in the season the Rockets were held to under 100 points and shot a mere 25 free throws, their third-fewest of the season.
Houston leads the NBA in free throw attempts per game (28.9) but the team went to the line 25 times Wednesday. Gary Harris, Will Barton and Paul Millsap all played effective roles in freezing out any player not named Harden. Houston’s other star Russell Westbrook was forced into taking mid-to-long range shots as the Nuggets closed up the paint with often three players guarding that area. In the third quarter, Denver’s stingy scheme on defense sparked a 13-5 run to open the quarter. Houston would only score 22 in the third.
Harden came into the game averaging 39.5 points, he finished with 27 points – his lowest total since the Rockets’ season opener where he had 19.
"We gave him different looks and got the ball out of his hands," Malone said. "The guys believed, they executed. That's what you have to do against great players."
Moving the rock
Jamal Murray shot 4 of 16 with 10 points but he continues to show improvement in the other facets of his game. The 22-year-old point guard swiped a career-high six steals and consistently made plays for teammates, adding nine assists.
Murray was one of five players to have at least three assists and as a result had eight players with at least eight points.
"Twenty-nine assists and I think our assist-to-turnover ratio is one of the best in the NBA right now, so we're coming along nicely," Malone said.