The Denver Nuggets hosted the Houston Rockets on Sunday night as two of the league’s hottest teams clashed in a battle between Western Conference playoff contenders. James Harden was the best player on the floor as the Rockets tore the Nuggets up for the third time this season. Houston won its twelfth straight game by a score of 119-114.

Denver made an intriguing defensive adjustment in this game; Houston has targeted Jokic with the Capela pick-and-roll frequently in recent meetings between these squads. Jokic isn’t athletic enough to hedge correctly with much consistency, and a switch is exactly what Houston wants — an isolation possession against Jokic. To counter, Malone actually had Jokic guard PJ Tucker, opting to leave Wilson Chandler on Capela instead. They essentially begged Houston to either post up Capela, or beat Denver in a pick-and-roll that doesn’t involve Jokic. Houston obliged.

As intriguing as the adjustment was, it wasn’t particularly effective. Houston was still able to score 38 points on 12-23 from the field as James Harden spent the entire quarter in his proverbial kitchen — the dude was cooking. The Nuggets switched most screens with Harden as the ball handler and Daryl Morey’s pick for the greatest isolation player of all-time chowed down on various mismatches.

Denver, meanwhile, looked disjointed on offense. Players looked unsure of what plays were being run, open shooters appeared unready for Jokic’s cross-court passes, and those who were ready simply missed their shots. The Nuggets managed just 25 points and trail by 13 as the second quarter began.

Denver’s bench played well defensively to start the second quarter. With James Harden on the bench and Mason Plumlee in the game to cover Capela, Denver was able to stymie Houston’s game plan and force Paul to beat them with individual greatness. The quarter was played at a frantic pace and the Nuggets looked out of control at times on the offensive end — especially in transition, though they were able to outscore Houston in Harden’s absence.

Harden would check back in though, and he picked up right where he left off. He drew fouls on the drive, fouls beyond the arc, and toyed with Denver’s defenders in isolation situations. The game devolved into a free throw fest — just the way Harden likes it — and Denver couldn’t keep up with Houston’s production at the line. The lead ballooned back up to 14 points as the Rockets led 66-52 at the half. ‘The Beard’ entered the locker room with 27 points, five rebounds and four assists on 7-12 from the lead.

Houston remain dialed in in the third quarter, particularly with the three-point shot. The Rockets hit five of the eleven three point shots they took and they continued to get themselves to the free throw line. Denver were the beneficiaries though of a much more aggressive Jokic. Despite an ineffective and mostly lethargic first half, Jokic finally began to make a mark on the game. The Nuggets, one of the NBA’s best third quarter teams, were able to outscore Houston 27-26 in the quarter and keep the game within reach. That wouldn’t be the case for much longer.

The Rockets put their foot on the gas in the fourth and pushed their lead to a game-high 18 in just two minutes of game time. Denver’s bench failed to make any real push before Houston’s starters checked in and it looked like Houston was poised to run away with the game — that’s not at all what happened. Instead, that fight and grit that’s come to define this young Nuggets team reared its head and Denver’s starters made a furious push to get the lead back down to double-digits.

They game would get as close as four points but Denver failed to turn the final corner. Houston pulled away in the final minutes for a 119-114 victory.

James Harden finished with a remarkable 41 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in just 36 minutes of action. Harden also knocked down 13 of his 16 attempts from the free throw line. Nikola Jokic’s triple-double streak came to a close as the big man fell three assists shy of a fourth consecutive game with such a line.

Following the loss, the Nuggets fall to 33-27 on the year and 24-8 at the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets will have Monday off, but will remain in Denver to host the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday. That game tips off at 8:30pm MT.