Game Preview: Defense is Name of the Game in Nuggets Contest at Houston

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider
@chrisadempsey

HOUSTON – If there is anything Nuggets coach Michael Malone respects most about the transformation the Houston Rockets have undergone this season, it’s that those changes almost all resulted in improved defense.

It’s no secret Malone loves defense. As he brings his Nuggets into Houston for a game against the 40-13 Rockets on Friday night, he wants his own squad to turn it up on the defensive end.

“I thought early in the year we were really good,” Malone said. “I thought when Paul (Millsap) went down, we slipped a lot. And then we found a great area where we were defending at a high level. I think lately – and this is one of the concerns about playing up-tempo basketball – our defensive numbers are slipping. And fast.”

For all of the points the Nuggets have scored in a current three-game winning streak – 121 per night – Malone is concerned with the number of points they are allowing – 112.

“As great as our offense has been, what worries me is we’re kind of falling back into last year’s basketball in terms of great offense, 3-point shooting, a lot of assists, great ball movement, great pace, but then our defense isn’t there,” Malone said. “We beat Charlotte because in the second half we held them to 38 percent. … It’s a fine line, but hopefully our guys understand the importance of defense, because if we do not defend and just try to outscore teams we’ve already seen that movie and it’s not a good ending.”

Defense, for the Rockets, has been a near night-and-day improvement. Their defensive rating (104.9), second-chance points allowed (11.5), fast break points allowed (12.6) and points in the paint allowed (47.6) are all dramatically better from a season ago.

The addition of defensive-minded players in the offseason has worked.

“The Rockets realized, okay, let’s go out and get Luc Mbah a Moute, let’s go get P.J. Tucker,” Malone said. “Trevor Ariza is a good defender, Chris Paul is a good defender. They’ve added defensive pieces that fit into their system. So, I think that allows them to not only be a dangerous team in the playoffs but a team that could really win a championship because now they have the ability to play on both ends of the floor.”

The Nuggets have a tall task tonight in facing the Rockets. On the road overall, they’ve lost six straight games and haven’t won a contest away from the Pepsi Center since Dec. 23 at Golden State. At Houston, the Nuggets have lost three straight and seven of the last eight.

Getting off to a good start is paramount. The Rockets average more points in the first quarter (31.4) than any team in the league, and that quarter has been a huge predictor of the outcome for the Nuggets on the road. When the Nuggets win the first quarter on the road, they’re 4-3. When the lose it, or end tied, they are 3-15.

INJURY REPORT: Paul Millsap (wrist) and Mason Plumlee (calf) are out of tonight’s game.

Christopher Dempsey: christopher.dempsey@altitude.tv and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.