Starting five: Nuggets find no remedy for Rockets’ offensive onslaught

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) celebrates after scoring a basket during the second quarter against the Denver Nuggets at Toyota Center.
Jan 7, 2019; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) celebrates after scoring a basket during the second quarter against the Denver Nuggets at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets five-game winning streak came to a close in Houston against the Rockets, who have now beaten Denver nine-consecutive times.

Denver battled for all four quarters, but they had no defensive answers for the Rockets offensive attack, lost Gary Harris to yet another lower body injury, and Houston destroyed Denver’s starting lineup.

With all of that being said, here are five takeaways from Houston’s dismantling of the Nuggets.

Nuggets have no ability to defend the Rockets

The Rockets isolation heavy and pick and roll heavy offense has become Denver’s defensive kryptonite. It does not matter what scheme the Nuggets attempt to employ; the Rockets can score at will against Denver.

The Nuggets tried multiple different coverages against the Rockets. They hedged hard and had their big providing perimeter containment up at the level of the screen, but when Denver defended in that way, Clint Capela was able to slip the screen and found himself wide open at the rim and on his way to 31 points.

The Nuggets brought a second defender to either double or trap Harden, but once Harden drew two defenders, he found the open shooter which led to Gerald Green and P.J. Tucker shooting a combined 13-21 from 3-point range.

If Denver tried to drop their big to keep Capela from feasting at the rim, Harden did what he does best and roasted the Nuggets in isolation which is evident by his 15 attempted free throws.

Simply stated, there has not been any usable answer as the Nuggets search for solutions to their defensive deficiencies against the Rockets.

Free throw and 3-point disparity

Anyone who watches the NBA knows that the goal for the Rockets is to create points in three ways: at the rim, beyond the 3-point line, and at the free throw line.

When Denver took on the Rockets in Houston on Monday night, they won the battle of points in the paint 58-to-32, but they unfortunately were decimated in the other two areas.

From the 3-point line, Houston shot a scalding 22-of-47 which equates out to 46.8 percent while Denver only managed to hit 7-of-29 attempts from deep which placed their percentage at just 24.1 percent. By the time the final buzzer had sounded, Houston hit 15 more 3-pointers than Denver which gave them an insurmountable 45-point advantage from 3-point distance.

Just to make things worse, Denver also did not receive the benefit of the doubt when it came to foul calls. In the first half, Houston took 27 total free throws while Denver took just 11 even though the Nuggets were living in the painted area. In the first half, Harden made as many free throws as the Nuggets did as a team.

If Denver is to find a way to beat the Rockets in the future, they cannot be outscored by 54 points from the 3-point line and the free throw line combined.

Nuggets starters get destroyed

Denver’s starters were absolutely decimated when they took on the Rockets in Houston.

By the time the final buzzer had sounded, Denver’s starters were outscored 93-to-62 and it wasn’t as close as it seemed. Nikola Jokic was strong for the Nuggets the majority of the night, but even his 24 points, 13 rebounds, and four assists in 28 minutes were not enough to keep pace with the Rockets offensive bombardment.

Denver did not get enough supplemental help around Jokic. Torrey Craig had just five points on 1-of-5 shooting. Paul Millsap was 2-of-6 from the field for just six points. Gary Harris and Jamal Murray shot a combined 9-of-24 from the field and only hit 3-of-8 3-point attempts.

The Nuggets starting unit is still getting on the same page after dealing with so many injuries, but they cannot get outplayed that badly and expect to win.

Nikola Jokic’s late fourth quarter appearance

At the 7:34 mark of the fourth quarter, there was a TV timeout prior to Jamal Murray taking two free throws. At this point, after Murray hit both shots from the charity stripe, the Nuggets trailed by just nine points and were doing what they could to fight back into their road matchup with the Rockets.

Then, for some reason, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone elected to keep Jokic on the bench instead of inserting him at the 7:34 mark of the court quarter. That decision in itself is not strange. Malone tends to go back to his best player around the six minute mark of the final quarter of play, but in a game that was suddenly within single digits, Denver needed their best player on the floor.

Before Jokic was eventually inserted back into the game at the 5:54 mark of the fourth quarter, Capela had already had his own 4-0 run to push the Rockets lead from nine points to 13 points which all but assured Denver’s eventual loss.

It seems as if Malone wants to make sure that he has a rested Jokic to close the game, but at some point, Jokic will have to play more than six minutes in the fourth quarter. He is Denver’s best player and he is the player that Malone has built his offensive and defensive schemes around. Denver needs to find a way to get Jokic more minutes late in games.

Gary Harris returns and then hurts hamstring

After 11 missed games and three games off the bench, Gary Harris was finally re-inserted into the starting lineup. He did not play particularly well and missed a lot of open shots, but having him back in his starting role was great.

Then Harris was removed from the game with five seconds left in the third quarter and never returned after tweaking his hamstring. In a season full of terrible injury luck, this has become commonplace for the Nuggets.

Hopefully Harris is ok. He told Malone after the game that he was fine, but Malone said there was some concern with his hamstring issue. Harris is officially listed as questionable for the Nuggets matchup with the Miami Heat for their second game in two nights.

Hopefully Harris’ tweaked hamstring is nothing serious.