The Denver Nuggets are 7-1 in their last eight games, but they have failed to play anywhere near their best basketball over the last two weeks.

In Houston against the Rockets, coasting to a win was not an option for the Nuggets. If Denver wanted to come away with a gigantic win over the team chasing them in the playoff standings, it was going to take one of their best all-around performances of the season.

Unfortunately, Denver’s inconsistencies reared their ugly head. After a stellar first quarter, the Nuggets fell apart and ended up losing to the Rockets 112-85.

With the Rockets win, Houston has now secured the tiebreaker between them and Denver which could be important as the Nuggets continue to fight for a top-two seed in the Western Conference. With the loss, the Rockets only trail Denver by three games. Considering that Houston now only has six games remaining in the regular season and Denver is down to just eight games, the battle for the top-two seeds is going to come down to the last few games of the year.

Denver’s biggest issue in the past 10 games or so has been their massive inconsistencies. Their effort and focus would waver as the game went on and in Houston, it was much of the same. Still, the Nuggets were locked in during the first quarter.

On defense, Denver was playing the Rockets much more straight up than they did earlier in the season. Instead of hedging and doubling James Harden, Denver was dropping their bigs and trusting their guards to fight over screens and contain on the perimeter. That plan more or less worked in the first 12 minutes of the game as Denver held Harden to seven points in the first quarter and the Rockets to just 22 points on 42.9 percent shooting.

Offensively, the Nuggets starters were great, but their bench unit only could muster four total points. When the starters went to the bench, the offense bogged down, but when the starters were in, Denver was scoring at will. Nikola Jokic had five assists in the first quarter and scored or assisted on eight of Denver’s 10 made baskets.

The Rockets came back swinging to start the second quarter. They went on an 8-2 run in the first 34 seconds of the second quarter which suddenly gave Houston a three-point lead resulting in Nuggets head coach Michael Malone taking a very early timeout.

Then, when that 8-2 run turned into a 12-2 run, worry began to creep in. Denver’s bench unit was their one advantage over the Rockets in the first three meetings this season, but on Thursday, their bench unit was a disaster. After the first 24 minutes of the game, Denver’s bench was outscored by Houston 18-6.

By the time all of Denver’s starting unit was able to get back into the game, Denver’s lead was gone and they found themselves down 13 points with just over five minutes remaining before halftime.

Denver’s starters played much better than their bench unit did, but the Rockets offense could not be stopped now that they had most of the momentum on their side. By the time halftime arrived, the Nuggets trailed 62-44 after being outscored by 21 points in the second quarter.

Denver needed to come out of halftime with urgency and intent if they wanted to get back into the game which is exactly what they did. On offense, they were executing which allowed them to close within 13 points, but the Rockets continued to score at will which is why Denver could not get any closer than that.

There were multiple points where Denver was one possession away from getting within ten points, but failed to get over the hump each time. Eventually, the third quarter came to an end with Denver trailing by 87-65.

The Nuggets tried to fight in the fourth and final quarter, but were unable to make a dent in the deficit which turned the last quarter into extended garbage time. By the tine the game mercifully ended, the Nuggets lost to the Rockets by a score of 112-85.

Once again, it was Murray and Jokic who carried the statistical load for Denver. Jokic finished with 16 points, eight rebounds, and six assists while Murray had 20 points on 7-14 shooting from the field. For Houston, James Harden continued his unprecedented offensive season with 38 points, six rebounds, and six assists.

Next, the Nuggets will finish up their back-to-back in Oklahoma City against the Thunder for their final game of the quick two-game road trip. That game will tip off at 6pm MDT on Friday night.