By: Paul McGuire
Tonight was the fourth game in five nights for both Denver and Houston, and it showed. Both teams were tired and the fourth quarter was essentially garbage time for the starters.
In a game like this, the team which strikes first can gain a quick, permanent advantage. But while the Nuggets started off strong at the beginning of both halves and grabbed an 11-point lead in the first quarter, the Houston bench and Corey Brewer rallied, punched the Nuggets in the mouth, and never looked back. Better energy and size meant that the Rockets pounded the ball inside and forced the Nuggets into jump shot after jump shot, something which the Nuggets announcers harped on endlessly.
I have discussed Houston’s lack of size without Howard several times. But with Jusuf Nurkic nursing an ankle sprain, the Nuggets’ starting frontcourt was Faried and Gallinari. Such a lineup had no hope of keeping the Rockets out of the paint. Houston outscored Denver 48-36 there, and shot 24 free throws to 15.
But it wasn’t just Harden who slashed into the paint over and over again. Corey Brewer was a relentless spark of energy in a game which lacked so much of that. He crashed the glass and hustled to 24 points on 16 shots, and rallied the Rockets after the Nuggets made their two initial runs. Harden and McHale made it clear: Brewer won the Rockets the game tonight.
Jason Terry and Joey Dorsey can do some things, but Houston’s bench survives off of its midseason acquisitions of Brewer and Josh Smith. Smith commits too many mistakes to ever be part of the starting lineup, but his skills and athleticism helped a lot tonight as well. One thing I would observe about Smith is that he seems to have committed himself to the Moreyball “3 and layup” strategy. And while Smith’s three-point shooting has been problematic, it is not my biggest concern about his play. I worry more about how he forces too many risky plays while he has the ball. Just like Harden has a very high turnover rate for a shooting guard, so does Smith for a power forward.
In addition to the bench, Jones and Motiejunas worked over the smaller Nuggets for a change. Motiejunas scored 18 points, but these did not come out of the post as often compared to his past games. Instead, he ran the floor and got into the right places for a Harden or Josh Smith pass. Given Motiejunas’s post struggles as of late, it is a good way for him to rebound. Jones did not score well, but I did not even notice that until I looked at the boxscore. He was everywhere tonight, especially on defense.
Oh, and Harden had 28 points. Just another night for him.
A victory over the Nuggets may not seem to be anything to boast about. However, Houston’s main rivals in the playoff seeding, Memphis and Portland, blew games against inferior competition tonight. It is a shame that the playoffs cannot start today, for the seeding as of today is perfect for the Rockets. Houston would avoid the Clippers and the Warriors for the first two rounds and face off against the Mavericks in the first. Oklahoma City is in to possibly knock off the Warriors as well.
The Rockets are in third place, they have fewer games against +.500 teams than all but one of their Western Conference competitors (Los Angeles), and Harden’s MVP case looks as strong as ever. These past two games have been a good rebound from that ugly mess against Memphis.
Now, for the first time since that horrible May night last year, the Rockets will return to Portland and the Rose Garden on Wednesday.