The Denver Nuggets played in a playoff-like atmosphere against the three-seeded Houston Rockets on Saturday night, but poor free-throw shooting, foul trouble and a final missed effort, soiled the experience late, as the Nuggets fell, 109-105.
“It [is] kind of like a playoff situation where, [we] play them tonight, make some adjustments, see what we can do better and play them again in two days” said head coach Michael Malone. “We took away the three-point line, which was a big thing going in…From a gameplan standpoint, even though we gave up sixty points in the paint. You have to pick your poison against this team… That’s a high powered offensive team and I thought our defense, considering who we played, was really, really good tonight.”
The game teetered back and forth as the last minute approached, but ultimately the Nuggets failed to score on back-to-back possessions with less than a minute left, where Will Barton missed an open three-pointer, then on the following possession, missed a short runner in the closing seconds.
While the Nuggets did take away the three-point line from Houston, they couldn’t stop James Harden, who dropped his fourth straight triple-double, finishing with a game high 40 points, a game high 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Gary Harris led all Nuggets in scoring with 17 points.
The Nuggets squandered points late in ‘the little things’ department and it certainly caught the attention of coach Malone. “To me, this game comes down to the free throws” Malone said. “Obviously can’t put them on the foul line 35 times. We missed 11 free throws, that’s big right there; and we missed 18 layups tonight. We could’ve easily won the game if we make free throws, finish around the basket…Tough night, it comes down to the little things and we didn’t do enough of the little things to get the win tonight.”
It’s no question that Nikola Jokic is the centerpiece for the future of the Nuggets. There have been flashes from Jamal Murray and Juancho Hernangomez, as a potential young core grows; but as this young team progresses, the Nuggets will learn hard lessons. They were put in an interesting situation tonight and the lesson stumped them. Who is ‘the guy?’
Coach Malone was asked if anyone requested the ball in the final seconds. “We didn’t have anybody step up and say ‘give me the ball coach,’ but I know everybody is ready, willing and able to, if they’re called upon.”
The best teams in the Western Conference right now, all lean on ‘the guy.’ The Golden State Warriors have an abundance of players that lead the team, particularly Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. The San Antonio Spurs operate their best through Kawhi Leonard. The Nuggets just saw first-hand how the three-seeded Houston Rockets lean on James Harden. The Oklahoma City Thunder lean on Russell Westbrook and on and on. All players listed that when crunch-time, big game moments come. The ball is in their hands and it’s not even a question in the huddle leading up, who is leading the final possessions.
Denver is still searching for ‘that guy’ in ‘that moment.’ Obviously all players are ready and willing to step up when called upon to take the final shot and they should be praised for that mentality, but this team hasn’t had the killer instinct, late-game, go-to guy since Carmelo Anthony and they need one to emerge. This job by default, is generally saved for the team’s best player.
The Nuggets will get their chance at revenge on Monday night, when they visit the Houston Rockets. They remain the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference, a game and a half ahead of the Portland Trailblazers.