Failure to launch: Nuggets lose to Rockets again

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dribbles the ball against Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) during the first quarter at Toyota Center.
Jan 7, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dribbles the ball against Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris (14) during the first quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into Houston having won five games in a row, the Denver Nuggets streak came to a close in a 125-113 loss to the Rockets.

In a building the Nuggets have not won in since 2015 (now nine-straight games), Denver’s troubles with the Rockets continue after another crushing defeat. With the loss, Denver’s record moves to 26-12, which is still good for a one game lead over the Golden State Warriors for first place in the Western Conference.

The Nuggets already received a ton of good news pregame as Nikola Jokic was named the Western Conference Player of the Week for the second time this season. That was not all though as head coach Michael Malone also inserted Gary Harris and Paul Millsap back into the Nuggets starting lineup. With the hopes of ending an extremely long losing streak against the Rockets, being at (almost) full-strength was a great sign for Denver before the ball was even tipped.

In what was a sloppy start to the game for both teams, neither team was shooting the ball well as Houston held a narrow 8-7 lead with 6:50 left in the opening quarter. Turnovers and poor shooting was the story for both teams early, but one thing the Nuggets were able to accomplish was getting James Harden in early foul trouble. Picking up his second foul at the midway point of the first, Harden stayed in the game but still had struggles scoring the ball. With just four points in the first quarter, the Nuggets did a phenomenal job of slowing down Harden, but still trailed 22-20 with 2:41 left in quarter number one.

Led by a strong opening quarter from Jokic — 11 points, six rebounds, two assists — the Nuggets were able to take a 35-33 lead into the second. Jokic was not the only Nuggets player performing at a high level as Monte Morris provided a great spark off the bench. With eight first quarter points on 3-of-3 shooting from the field, Morris did a great job running the Nuggets second unit, while helping Denver regain the lead with Harden on the bench.

Morris’ tremendous play only continued in the second quarter as he opened the game 5-of-5 shooting from he field. With 12 early points to lead the Nuggets offensively, Morris’ play helped Denver jump out to a 43-40 lead with 8:28 left in the half. Morris’ play also allowed Denver to grow their lead with Jokic on the bench before the Nuggets big man subbed back in at the eight minute mark of the quarter.

Even with Jokic back in, Houston got hot from the field with a solid mix of Clint Capela and trips to the free-throw line. Already with 17 points from Capela to go along with 22 trips to the line, Houston was able to jump back in front to give themselves a 51-47 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. The remaining minutes of the quarter was a healthy dose of the same for Houston as Capela continued to gash Denver, while Harden was just getting started.

To close the second, Denver really struggled offensively while Harden did the complete opposite. Led by Harden, the Rockets closed he quarter on a 19-13 run as Denver trailed 70-60 going into halftime. Harden would ultimately finish the half with 18 points after he drilled three triples in the closing minutes of the half. Houston as a team shot 10-of-21 from distance in the first half as the Nuggets countered by going just 5-of-15 from distance.

Stat leaders for Denver at the break was Jokic, who finished with 15 points, nine rebounds, and three assists to go along with seven turnovers. Morris also had a solid half with 12 point on 5-of-5 shooting from the field, while Harris was also in double-figures with 12 points on 3-of-8 shooting from the field.

As a team, the Nuggets struggled in the first half to defend the three-point line and coupled it with far to many turnovers. If the Nuggets were going to walk out of Houston with a win, the turnovers and three-point defense had to take a positive turn to help Denver get back into the game. The opposite happened though as PJ Tucker opened the third with two threes to give Houston a 12-point lead with 9:49 left in the quarter. Tucker was absolutely annihilating the Nuggets from distance as he already had 18 points courtesy of six three-pointers at this point in the game.

After some back and fourth minutes of play, a Malik Beasley three-pointer allowed Denver to cut their deficit back down to eight with under four minutes left in the quarter. The Rockets three-point barrage continued though as Houston was able to take a 96-89 advantage into the final quarter. All things considering, it was pretty remarkable how the Nuggets were down just seven points as they went into the final quarter of play. After being outscored by 30 points from three-point range and 13 points from the free-throw line through three quarters, the Nuggets having a chance in the fourth was incredible with what had transpired though 36 minutes of play.

Taking all the momentum into the final quarter of play, Denver could still not slow down Houston’s three-point shooing as the Rockets still held a 107-96 lead with 7:48 left to play. The Rockets would only expand on that lead as the quarter wore on as a Harden three-pointer with 4:42 left in the game was the proverbial nail in the coffin for Denver. At that point, the Nuggets deficit was 117-100 as Denver had no way of stopping Harden or Houston’s offense as a whole. The Nuggets would sub out all of their starters at this point in the game as Houston controlled the rest of the night to capture a 125-113 victory over Denver.

Stat leaders for the Nuggets were Jokic, who had his 24th double-double of the season finishing with 24 points and 13 rebounds. Jokic also dished out four assists and swiped two steals, but did have eight turnovers in his 28 minutes of action. Another notable stat line came from Morris, who had 21 points on an extremely efficient 9-of-13 shooing from the field. The Nuggets also had three more players finish in double-figures as Harris, Beasley, and Jamal Murray all scored 14, 14, and 13 points respectively.

The Nuggets will now have quick turnaround as they fly to Miami tonight to face the Heat tomorrow on the second night of a back-to-back.