Denver Nuggets 114, Houston Rockets 108: Too little, too late

The Houston Rockets were going to be embarrassed.

With about two minutes left and down 99-110, Bernie Bickerstaff brought out K.J. McDaniels, Ty Lawson, and the rest of the bench mob to finish off the game. Then the Rockets made some threes, played defense for seemingly the first time in the second half, and made a last minute charge. Down 110-108 with 30 seconds left, James Harden dribbled to a wide open Jason Terry for a wide open corner three-pointer…

…and he missed.

There’s a reason the saying “Good teams don’t win close games. They avoid them” exists. Most of the time, Terry hits that shot. But because the Rockets dug themselves a hole to try to win the game at the last minute, the game came down to that one shot. A coin flip.

And this time, the coin came out tails.

Of course, we have to discuss why the Rockets were in such a hole to begin with. And that can be summed up by the fact that the Nuggets scored 114 points tonight. In fact, the Rockets have given up more than 110 points in 11 games this season, and less than 100 just four times.

Defense. Defense, defense, defense.

Specifically, interior defense and rebounding. The Rockets gave up a season high 62 points in the paint, gave up 15 offensive rebounds while getting just five of their own, and were pounded over and over by Joffrey Lauvergne and Kenneth Faried on the glass. When the Nuggets missed a shot, they got it back and scored anyways, just like they did on every possession for about five minutes in the third quarter.

To be fair, a lot of Houston’s issues with interior defense could not be helped. Clint Capela was out with an illness. Terrence Jones got his eye lacerated again. And while Donatas Motiejunas was fantastic on the low block tonight, showing what he can do on the low block as he scored 19 points, he just is not in shape yet. Worrell joked about getting him an oxygen tank late in the fourth quarter as Motiejunas was visibly laboring after 22 minutes of play.

Right when Houston was hoping that Motiejunas’s return could shore up their shaky frontcourt lineup, they have to deal with a lack of frontcourt depth all over again, and we can expect to see Montrezl Harrell recalled from the D-League soon. But without that depth, the Nuggets took advantage, ran the ball, and controlled the paint and the foul line.

So perhaps Houston could just write this loss off due to sudden, unexpected injuries. But not everything can be explained with that. Defensive rebounding is not just a big man thing. Guards have to make sure that their man does not charge in for the put back, and the Houston guards didn’t. Harden in particular didn’t, and he hasn’t done that all season.

One play which occurred around the five minute mark in the fourth quarter sums up the lack of effort from the guards. Nuggets wing Gary Harris blew past Jason Terry, but the presence of Dwight Howard caused him to miss the layup.

And then, with Harden and Pat Beverley standing there, the ball managed to hit the floor.

It managed. To hit. The floor.

Harris grabbed it first, tipped the ball out to Will Barton, who missed a three-pointer but then chased after it to grab another offensive rebound and pass it to Joffrey for a dunk.

Getting the basketball before it touches the floor was something I was taught to do in middle school, never mind professional basketball. The Rockets couldn’t even do that, and so ended up giving up two points in the process. And those two points were pretty much the difference between winning and losing tonight.

It’s the little plays like that where Houston has been an utter disaster this season. And it’s the little plays which make the difference. Yes, Motiejunas scored well. Yes, Houston is on track to make threes after not being able to hit anything earlier this season. Yes, the Rockets woke up and played defense to make a game of it at the end.

So in that sense, it was better than the two earlier disastrous defeats to the Nuggets. But it is not good enough, and the Rockets have a lot of work to do on improving their hustle if they want to become relevant in this Western Conference again.


About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.

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