The Denver Nuggets are everyone’s sexy pick for “top team which gets knocked off in the first round,” but I think that they are underrated. They rebound, are deep, play hard, and have been a top 10 offense and defense this season.
But the Houston Rockets are a terrible match-up for the Nuggets, and that was on full display with this crushing and dominant victory. Denver landed the first punch, going up 23-16 late in the first quarter. Houston missed some easy shots and Jamaal Murray got into the rim, epitomized by an absurd layup where his back was to the rim.
After that, it was all Rockets. And while Harden had 38 points and kept the Nuggets from ever threatening Houston’s ballooning lead, he was not the one who created the lead. That was Austin Rivers, Clint Capela, and Houston’s defense.
Mike D’Antoni observed afterwards that “the second unit turned the game around,” and every bench player played their part (except perhaps for Danuel House, but he was overdue for a bad game anyhow) including Iman Shumpert with his defense and rebounding. Austin Rivers was the main man for that attraction. He hit three straight-pointers during Houston’s second quarter blitz and made all of his field goals in the second and third quarters outside of an end-of-quarter prayer. Even with some late fourth quarter chucking, he still finished with 15 points on 6-10 shooting with a +/- of +34.
Clint Capela had 13 points by the end of the first half, but it felt more like 30 with dunk after dunk. After Rivers was done, Harden and Capela played the two-man game on the pass and Capela outran and out muscled Jokic in transition and half-court. Jokic is big and skilled. But he is not an athlete like Capela is, and he was clearly exhausted trying to keep up. Jokic had 5 assists during that first stretch where Denver took the 23-16 lead, but finished with just 6 for the game. When Capela was done, the Rockets entered the half with a 62-44 and the rest of the game became a mere formality.
That happened because the Rockets as a whole played better defense, especially compared to the Milwaukee debacle. Denver is one of the top rebounding teams in the league, but Houston still won the rebounding battle 46-38, with 11 offensive rebounds to Denver’s 7. The Rockets swarmed, stayed in the passing lanes to limit Jokic’s famous passing, and Harden did his thing where Millsap and Jokic tried to score on him in the post with predictable failure.
Looking Forward to this Matchup
Nuggets fans can point out that their team shot just 4-24 from long range in comparison to over 40% from the Rockets in relevant minutes, and argue that the game would have been closer otherwise. And the Nuggets can beat the other teams in the Western Conference, especially the Thunder who have lost their last five games to Denver.
But this game is proof that Houston must do whatever they can to finish on Denver’s side of the bracket instead of Golden State’s. Denver has no true perimeter stopper like the Bucks did with Eric Bledsoe and George Hill or the Warriors with Klay and Iguodala, and Jokic is the kind of center Capela can handle as opposed to the lumbering behemoths like Marc Gasol or Demarcus Cousins. Houston is a much more disciplined team which can play fast or slow, and even non-Rockets fans know what this team can accomplish when the going gets tough.
The Nuggets could win some games against the Rockets in a playoff series. I could imagine a scenario where Murray goes off using his athleticism and size against Chris Paul, and the Nuggets shooters like Gary Harris go off while Houston struggles. But is is hard to imagine that happening four times in seven games.
There are six games left in the regular season, with Houston’s strength of schedule becoming much easier with the Milwaukee and Denver games out of the way. Clyde Drexler in one of his ramblings declared that he was confident Houston could grab the second seed. While that is nonsensical, Houston should be able to keep the third seed and avoid the Warriors until they can match up again in the Western Conference Finals.