Having played in Portland last night and coming up against a Nuggets team that has had a night off, you could be forgiven for writing this one off as a schedule loss in the high altitude of the Pepsi Center. But the Nuggets are missing two of their better players in Ty Lawson and Danilo Galinari, and given how the Rockets have been playing pretty well recently there was reason to be optimistic. Could they upset the odds and pull off a win in difficult circumstances?
The Rockets came cold out of the gate, slipping to a 12-4 deficit on the back of a couple of Nuggets threes. But as has happened in the last few contests, they were able to key off the spark provided by Garcia to get them going. He knocked down a couple of threes on consecutive possessions, and suddenly it was contagious – Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lin both put in one of their own in quick succession to give them the lead, and both Anderson and Motiejunas converted later in the quarter.
The defense also stepped up, at one point forcing two shot clock violations in succession. It seemed as though the Nuggets were missing the outside shooting of Galinari as they tossed up several airballs from around the perimeter. No Ty Lawson probably hurt them too – the Rockets were packing the paint and making penetration difficult, particularly for Andre Miller who isn’t the quickest any more. When Evan Fournier came off the bench he was able to do a bit better.
Terrence Jones was more active tonight after a passive game against Portland. He looked confident in the first half, knocking down the open three (although his release is painfully slow), and converting a three point play. There was also a very attractive block where he had the presence of mind to direct the ball up the floor, triggering the break. Unfortunately he looks as though he still hasn’t quite adjusted to the speed of the NBA games at times though. There were a couple of offensive possessions where he hesitated upon receiving the ball, destroying the Rockets’ flow. The coaches have obviously told him to be aggressive, and that manifests itself in him trying a lot of expansive and flowing moves, facing up his man or trying something in the post. You can see the quickness and strength is there, but he’s going for too much at the moment and it’s not coming off. In the NBA you want every dribble to have a purpose, but he doesn’t seem to have absorbed that lesson yet.
Harden was struggling from the field, but making up for it by getting to the free throw line a lot. He’s struggled in the past with Iguodala, but tonight he was taking advantage of the eagerness of Corey Brewer. Every time Harden drove Brewer would go for the steal and inevitably get nothing but arm, making an easy call for the referee. The upshot was that by half time Harden had 12 points despite only making 1 of 6 shots.
In the second quarter it seemed as though the thin air and lack of rest was catching up with the Rockets. They’d done a good job up to that point of limiting the high-flying transition game the Nuggets love to play, but some sloppy turnovers allowed a procession of layups and alley-oops to give the Nuggets back the lead. McHale looked absolutely furious with the team as he was forced to call a timeout – the subject of his ire was probably the previous defensive stand, in which JaVale McGee was able to rise up uncontested for an easy dunk. But despite looking a little more alive after the timeout, they were unable to completely stop the bleeding. They ended up giving up 39 points in the quarter to be down 8 at half time.
The third quarter felt like more of the same. The Nuggets seemed to have more energy, flying all over the court, while the Rockets were starting to make a few silly mistakes. Harden looked low on energy. At one point he thought he had been fouled in the far corner and just…stopped. The Nuggets stole the ball and went the other way, easily converting the ensuing 5-on-4 as Harden jogged back up the court. By this point it shouldn’t be surprising to see Harden putting in less effort than he should be on defense, but this felt particularly egregious. He missed a couple of threes short as well, which tends to be a sign of fatigue, and McHale pulled him out shortly thereafter. He did not see the court again for the rest of the game.
The lone bright spot in the third quarter for the Rockets was Jeremy Lin. He was making a lot of tough shots around the basket (including his first 6 of the game) and doing a great job on the distribution side of things too. The driving game was working really well – at this stage of life Andre Miller doesn’t really have the necessary footspeed to stay in front of players like Lin. Apart from one possession where he clanked two corner threes (Terrence Jones with the offensive rebound), I don’t really remember him putting a foot wrong. He ended up with a pleasing 23 points (on 8-15 shooting) to go with 8 assists.
When the dust had settled at the end of the third quarter, the scoreboard did not make for pretty reading. The Nuggets had put up 38 points en route to a 19 point lead, and there was no coming back. The Rockets opened the quarter with Lin/Beverley/Anderson/Jones/Robinson, but quickly subbed in Brooks as McHale threw in the towel. There were about 9 minutes of garbage time as the teams played out the string. It’s probably fair to assign some of the blame to the circumstances as the Rockets looked dead-on-the-court for most of the second half, but some credit must be given to the Nuggets too. They were explosive on the break and clinical at making the most of the Rockets’ fatigue. Even without some of their better players, they’re still very much alive in the third spot, and on the evidence of tonight and the previous games in the season series they are not a team the Rockets match up with very well. If Houston can make it to the number 6 spot for the playoffs, I maintain that they are the team the Rockets would least like to play.
- Since Smith has joined the starting lineup, the Rockets have liked to go to him for the first possession of the game in the post. This game they continued to feature him on the low block on several further possessions in the early going. He didn’t have much success with it, going 0-3 to start the game (though he did have a bit more joy in the second half, making a hook shot and drawing a foul). While it works as a change of pace, I’m not sure that Smith quite has the back-to-the-basket game to be able to do it consistently unless he’s got a smaller opponent on him. Playing him at the four seems to reduce his opportunities for easy finishes slightly, but the team should probably be looking to set those up over some low percentage post ups.
- MEGA-DUNK! James Anderson absolutely posterised Evan Fournier for a dunk on the break that came from a Jones block in the first quarter. Didn’t realize he had such springs. I’m sure it will make some top play lists, so make sure you check it out. There were plenty of other highlights to be had from the Nuggets alley-oop factory too.
- I continue to be very impressed by Lin’s post defense – Miller took him down to the post a few times tonight and he handled it exceptionally well. It’s been a recurring theme with him – I remember Chris Paul trying to post him up a few games ago and getting nowhere either. He may struggle to keep quick guards in front of him at times, but if they’ve got their back to him you can count on him to do a decent job.
- At one point in the third quarter Asik tried to flop on a move in the post by Andre Miller. It was comedic to see the big man hit the deck on a bump by such a small player. Obviously he didn’t get the call.
- Really liked the look of Evan Fournier, who was playing backup point guard for the Nuggets tonight. He can hit the outside shot, he can penetrate, and he looks great in the open court too – there was one pretty fast break where he dropped a behind the back pass to a streaking Anthony Randolph.
- Stat-line of the night has to go to Andre Iguodala, who finished three rebounds shy of a triple double. He had 18 points, 14 assists and 7 rebounds and generally was at the heart of everything the Nuggets did. When analyzing the Dwight Howard trade in the summer, it seems as though the Nuggets can put up a good case for having come out best. They’ve done really well this season and Iguodala has been a big part of that.