Good, bad & ugly: Nuggets fall to the Rockets after fourth-quarter collapse

Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook (0) takes an inside shot against the Denver Nuggets during the second quarter at Toyota Center.
Dec 31, 2019; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook (0) takes an inside shot against the Denver Nuggets during the second quarter at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets went into their New Year’s Eve game against the Houston Rockets with a 23-9 record and after a close win against the Sacramento Kings.

In their win against the Kings, a bright spot for the Nuggets was the first start of heralded 2018 first round draft pick Michael Porter Jr., who jumped into the starting lineup due to injuries to Gary Harris (shin) and Paul Millsap (knee). In his first career start, Porter finished with a team-high 19 points.

The Nuggets have been a bit banged up, but the Houston Rockets have also been dealing with health issues of their own as James Harden (toe), Russell Westbrook and Clint Capela (heel) did not play in their last game.

Everyone other than Harris returned to action to finish off the 2019 calendar year with the Rockets putting together a stellar fourth quarter to secure the victory. Denver rallied in the game, but it was all for not as Houston finished off the year with a dominating 130-104  win. With that, I give you the good, bad and ugly.

Good – Jokic’s third quarter

The Nuggets played poorly to begin the game as they dug themselves a 17-point deficit in the first half. They could not get any stops, allowed the Rockets to get open looks, and they were not in a flow offensively.

The Nuggets turned that around to begin the second half as they fought back in the game and got within striking distance behind a 37-point third quarter.

The Nuggets won the frame 37-23 and it was behind the play of Nikola Jokic.

Jokic was a bit timid in the first half with only six points as he shot 3-7 from the field, but he made adjustments at halftime to get the Nuggets back in the game.

He came alive in the third quarter as he had 13 points in the frame alone. He also cleaned the glass and was engaged on the defensive end as well.

While he finished the game with six turnovers, it was while trying to make plays happen. He started a Denver run that saw the Nuggets get back in the game and showed that when he is focused and aggressive, the game comes easy to him.

Bad – First quarter defense

The Nuggets got off to another slow start and the Houston Rockets made them pay for it.

Denver was without Gary Harris — the Nuggets best perimeter defender — for his second-straight game and his absence was definitely felt; especially on the defensive end.

The Rockets raced out to an early lead and did not look back as they pushed the pace offensively and also got up their three-point shots which had to be a point of emphasis for the Nuggets heading into the game. Still, they were ineffective in slowing Houston down and running them off of the three-point line.

On offense, Houston attacked Jamal Murray on multiple occasions and also tried to spread out the Nuggets big men in ISO situations to either draw the mismatch or the foul.

That strategy proved to be effective as the Rockets led 38-26 at the end of the quarter and had an inside-out attack which got them their big lead.

The second quarter was not any better for the Nuggets as Houston pushed their lead out even more and led by 17 points at the half with their dynamic duo leading the way.

Westbrook was aggressive from the start and made things extremely difficult for the Nuggets early on. He had 18 points on 8-14 shooting from the field and also four assists to go along with it. Harden had 15 points and went 3-4 from beyond the arc.

The Nuggets have to figure out a way to not have so many slow starts, especially against these high-scoring teams that have the ability to build a big lead and shut the door on any comeback attempts.

Ugly — Terrible start to the fourth quarter

The Nuggets trailed by 17-points at the half, but put together a 37-point third quarter that cut the deficit to only three points.

It looked as if the Nuggets were going to fight back to make it a game, but then the Rockets reeled off a 16-3 run that opened it back up for Houston.

The run that Denver had was built around Jokic having himself a solid third quarter. Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni countered by keeping Harden in the game to begin the fourth quarter against the Nuggets bench unit and it ended up being the biggest difference in the game as it gave Houston momentum against the Nuggets second unit.

Harden and Westbrook remained aggressive against the Nuggets and got some scoring from their reserves as well. Isaiah Hartenstein posted a double-double of 16 points and 12 rebounds, Eric Gordon had 12 points and Ben McLemore hit three 3-pointers to finish with nine points.

The Nuggets did not end the calendar year as they wanted to as they fell to the Rockets and it was the play in the fourth quarter that led to the loss.

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