Going back to the 2015-16 season, the Denver Nuggets had yet to defeat the Houston Rockets, a trend that reached nine-consecutive loses on Monday night by a score of 125-113.
For the Nuggets, the gameplan was similar to other teams: Stop James Harden and stay away from fouling.
With neither facet of the Nuggets’ scheme coming to fruition, the Rockets flew past the Nuggets once again, with a lead they failed to yield at any point in the second half.
Ahead is the good, bad and ugly moments that impacted the Nuggets’ latest matchup with their Western Conference foe.
Good — Joker and Gagsworth continue their rhythm
In the old Batman comics, the villain, otherwise known as the Joker, hired a team of criminals, headlined by his sidekick Gagsworth, also known as ‘Gaggy.’ For the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic, or ‘Joker,’ and Monte Morris represent the duo in real life.
Fresh off of his Western Conference Player of the Week accolade, Jokic came out in the first half and showed aggression. Whether he was covered or not, the big man was pulling up:
Nikola actually shot this from Denver. pic.twitter.com/Vgkjwqh1bh
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) January 8, 2019
In the first half, Jokic accumulated 15 points, nine rebounds and three assists in 17 minutes. The only misstep for the Serbian center was a game-high seven turnovers in the opening 24 minutes, a product of several wayward passes.
When Jokic was sent to the bench for rest, Morris — the team’s Sixth Man of the Year candidate — shouldered the load. With Jamal Murray struggling to get anything going (3-of-8), Morris scored 12 of his 21 total points in only seven first-half minutes, nary a turnover.
En route to his 24th double-double on the year, Jokic commandeered the Nuggets’ efforts with 24 points 13 rebounds with four assists in 28 minutes. The performance further Jokic’s run, bringing his January averages to 27 points, 13 rebounds and 7.8 assists.
Bad — Nuggets caught with their hand in the cookie jar
Led by an MVP candidate in Harden, the Rockets lived at the free throw line.
Keying the hosts’ success in garnering free points at the line was a lack of discipline for the Nuggets’ defenders.
Switches were the root of the problem for the Nuggets as Harden was able to force Jokic and others to cover him in space, a grand mismatch. The Nuggets even fell prey to fouling outside the arc, resulting in an extra attempt.
As a team that shot 24.5 attempts per game from the line entering the contest, ninth-most in the league, their gameplan was hardly a secret for Michael Malone’s squad.
The youth of the Nuggets was on full display as they failed to remain succinct in their defensive efforts, faltering on several pump fakes.
Once the team was able to avoid the mass fouling, the Rockets shooting efforts took off with several of their looks being open due to Denver’s switching issues. In the game, the hosts shot 38-of-76 from the field and a 22-of-47 mark from 3-point range.
The fouls were a large factor in the Nuggets’ first loss in their last six games, both at the line and away.
Ugly: Execution against Clint Capela on defense
The biggest mismatch for a Nuggets team that has been unable to overcome the Rockets has been both James Harden and Clint Capela.
The latter was a puzzle without a solution for the Nuggets on Monday.
For a stretch in the first half, the Rockets went to their big man several times in a row, regardless of the defenders near him. Capela made the visitors pay, scoring 19 of his 31 points in the first half alone. The tally not only included an efficient 13-of-18 from the field in the game, but also seven trips to the free throw line (5-of-7).
As far as measurables, the Nuggets actually held the advantage, with Jokic being two inches taller and 10 pounds heavier. The deciding factor between the two was Capela’s aggression and speed, a facet that was unmatched by the Nuggets center, especially in transition:
— Houston Rockets (@HoustonRockets) January 8, 2019
In the two teams’ last meeting, Capela was able to register 24 points and nine rebounds on 11-of-15 from the field with only four attempts from the charity stripe.
The efforts from Capela allowed the Rockets’ reliance on Harden to subside, a catalyst for the rout and a continuous factor in the Nuggets inability to overcome their southern opponent.