Denver Nuggets 124, Houston Rockets 111: Three takeaways

by Alex Labidou Staff Writer

Denver Nuggets put on a strong defensive performance to secure their first victory of the season against the Houston Rockets in a 124-111 win.

There is the brand of Nuggets’ basketball we’ve become accustomed to under Michael Malone’s time with the team as the group outrebounded their opponents 52-38 en route to an assured win. Nikola Jokić dropped a career-high 18 assists and secured his 43rd career triple-double, adding 20 points and 12 boards. His latest triple-double ties him with Fat Lever for the Nuggets’ franchise record. James Harden paced the Rockets with 34 points, eight assists, and six rebounds.

"It's just expected for him to pass like that, but 18 assists is a lot. That's a lot. It's incredible, what he can do and he's so calm about it," Jamal Murray said of Jokić's performance. "He just kind of sits there in the post and if nothing's open, it's one-on-one. Easy work, baby food. So, it's a pleasure to be able to throw the ball to him and, I'm there ready to shoot. But, when he's doing that, they can't stop it. Until they try changing something, we keep going at it.” 

Denver will now aim to build on this win Tuesday night when they travel to California to take on the Kings in Sacramento (8 p.m. MT, ALTITUDE).

"Desire, urgency and want. That’s what rebounding is, it’s not technique. It’s going to get the ball," Malone said. "It’s black and white, I don’t give our guys meaningless stats; you have to understand why you win or why you lose in this business. It’s historical, in my five years here, now six, when we get outrebounded, we don’t win." 

"We took a little step in the right direction in that regard tonight." 

Here are the takeaways:

First-half defense fuels first victory

Gritty, hard-fought, passionate. Denver was relentless on the defensive end of the floor in the opening 12 minutes of the game and it set the tone for the rest of the contest.

Houston would take an early 22-20 lead before Malone’s team responded by playing suffocating defense from the remainder of the first quarter. After the Rockets scored their 26th point, they would be held at that mark for the next seven minutes and the Nuggets would respond with a 20-0 run that would span the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second.

The moment would stand out against most NBA teams, but it was especially impressive against Houston. The Rockets have been within the top six teams in the league in offensive rating over the past four seasons, including first in the 2017-18 season. Yes, this is a shorthanded group with several players out due to precautions taken for COVID-19, but the team put up 126 points Saturday against Portland. To hold the Rockets to under 30 points in both first and third quarters is a much-needed statement after struggling defensively in the first two games of the season.

"I thought our second half defense, especially on [James] Harden and [Christian] Wood, was much better than it was in the first half. We will have to be even better tomorrow night in Sacramento," Malone said. 

Joker ties Fat, continues MVP-caliber season

Nikola Jokić has tied Fat Lever for the franchise lead in triple-doubles in his sixth season. It’s an incredible feat and the scary fact is he hasn’t even entered his prime yet as he’s just 25.

"It's cool to be in the same [company] as Fat Lever...who is a legend of this franchise," Jokić said to ALTITUDE's Katy Winge. "It's a nice thing to be in the same group as him." 

Jokić did most of his damage in the first half, where he poured in 18 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in 19 minutes. His overall performance points to what should be a bigger story this season: His MVP chances.

The Serbian center has been balling out to start the season, as he was averaging 26.5 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 assists while shooting 58.1 percent from the field. If the Nuggets continue their team success over the past two seasons and Jokić remains as dominant, he might be a leading candidate for the league award this season. 

Bench and three-point shooting the difference

Despite the result against Los Angeles on Christmas, the Nuggets found a combination of reserves that worked well together in Monte Morris, P.J. Dozier, Will Barton III, and Isaiah Hartenstein. The quartet continued their success Monday, playing a pivotal role against the Rockets.

Sparked by Barton III and Morris, the Nuggets reserves outscored their counterparts 37-to-28. While it is still the early going of the season, Barton III is making his case as one of the best reserves in the league and had a game-high plus/minus of +25. The veteran swingman finished with 11 points, four rebounds and continued to be effective in both penetrating and making key plays on offense. Morris would add 12 points, five assists, and four boards and P.J. Dozier remains solid on the defensive end of the floor.

Another aspect that powered the Nuggets’ win was their step forward on hitting shots from downtown. Denver entered Monday’s game ranked 27th in made threes. Against the Rockets, they would hit 45.2 percent of their 31 attempts. It was another step in the right direction for Malone’s group.


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