The Houston Rockets ran out of gas tonight in Denver and fielded a powerful blow from a potential playoff opponent in the Nuggets. The starting point guard for the Nuggets Ty Lawson remains out with a heel injury and starting small forward Danilo Gallinari has torn his ACL. The Rockets were looking pretty polished at the end of the first quarter and had a ten point lead. What followed was a massacre. The Nuggets defended their house, plain and simple. With a 34-3 record at home this season (and 20 home wins in a row) it should be clear that they are very adept at doing that. The Rockets turned the ball over with determination and forfeited the paint to whichever Nugget dared to enter; spoiler alert - they all did.
Jeremy Lin kept his recent hot streak alive with a 23 point, 8 assist outing but he was the only Rocket who played a solid game from start to finish. The battle for starting power forward rages on and Terrence Jones is stealing the spotlight. Jones had 13 points and six rebounds. He showcased his range, his handle, his ability to hit the offensive glass and even some shot-blocking. The beard was a non factor tonight aside from his activity at the free throw line where Harden made 10 of his 14 points. The Nuggets have not lost a step following the devastating injury to Danilo Gallinari. Wilson Chandler stepped in seamlessly at small forward and contributed 21 points tonight. Andre Iguodala flirted with a triple double (18 points, 14 assists, 7 rebounds). Denver's bench was another key factor in the loss. Rookie guard Evan Fournier (17 points), hustle-man Corey Brewer (22 points), and Anthony "Mr. Potential" Randolph (14 points) gave Denver an abundance of support off the pine. Even Aaron Brooks saw the light of day in one of the sloppiest fourth quarters in recent memory. The Rockets never recovered from Denver's run in the first half and a game that started off looking like a cake walk quickly snowballed into an exhibition of everything the Houston Rockets do wrong.
High Octane Onset
The first half of tonight's game was an exhaustively exciting affair. I could probably devote an entire recap to the first quarter alone. It would certainly be more upbeat. The Nuggets hit the floor running early and weren't making many mistakes on the defensive game. Danilo Gallinari was a crucial part of Denver's offense and losing him for the rest of the season is going to be problematic for Nuggets head coach George Karl. Gallinari is a multifaceted offensive threat and more importantly he leads the Nuggets in three point makes this season. Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller are two guys who aren't known for their range but both Nuggets looked like sharpshooters during the first few minutes of the game. Wilson Chandler also proved to be a serviceable replacement for the role of offensive renaissance man. The Nuggets held a sizable lead until the Rockets hit four three pointers in a row during a 16-0 run. The offense was firing on all cylinders. The Rockets looked smooth on the break and they were making the extra pass to find shooters. One of those three point makes was delivered by none other than Terrence Jones who was the first sub off the bench tonight. At the end of the first quarters the Rockets sat atop a ten point lead, 35 to 25, but things had already started to take a turn for the worse.
Credit Where It's Due
Terrence Jones is nailing his first real audition for the starting power forward slot. Jones had four offensive rebounds and he was actively establishing himself in spots where he could help the team. Jones can also hit three pointers. He proved that during his year at Kentucky, and he's shown some flashes of range while playing for the Rockets. Having said that, I don't think Jones belongs in the corner on offense the same way that Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, and Donatas Motiejunas have helped the Rockets space the floor so many times this season. Jones has a great handle for a guy his size but his tendency to try to beat taller opponents off the dribble can be problematic. There is a time and place for Jones to harness his ball handling skills (like in transition) but the isolation dribble drive needs a little bit more coaching.
James Anderson has become a solid defensive piece for the Rockets who don't have a lot of options in terms of wing defense. He's quick, strong and he is getting better every game at staying with his man. Anderson had a solid offensive game tonight with 11 points (three shots from behind his arc). At one point in the first half Terrence Jones swatted a shot, Houston got the ball up the court in transition to Anderson who put Evan Fournier on a poster.
The Nugget's announcers tonight made an interesting point tonight about Corey Brewer being a superb sixth man. Brewer, who averages just under 12 points a game, isn't going to be voted sixth man of the year but the energy he brings off the bench is palpable and the Nuggets are lucky to have him.
Francisco Garcia was a nice under the radar addition for the Rockets. He's a seasoned swingman who plugged right into Houston's offense and he's been an important piece at the end of the season with injuries to Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino.
The Nuggets consistently rebutted the Rockets' offense with an uptick in defensive intensity. Denver quickly turned a double digit Rocket's lead into a close game and then a blowout by forcing turnovers, converting on the break, and riding the bench. That defensive tone starts with Andre Iguodala who is one of my favorite players in the league to watch for one reason: he is a defensive hit man. Iguodala shut down James Harden entirely and made some of the flashiest passes I've seen all season. Iguodala had one particularly beautiful play where he dribbled behind his back, between his legs and threw up a perfect dime to Kenneth Faried for the oop.
Evan Fournier is a neat prospect. The 6-6 rookie guard is fluid in transition, an above average shooter and he can create his own offense. George Karl is an incredibly creative coach who always finds the right role for his guys and I think he's got a big plans for Fournier.
Kevin McHale has recognized that Lin and Beverly work very well together on the floor and he has adjusted his rotations to make sure that tandem gets more burn. Bravo, McHale.
A Bad Night For Harden
James Harden started the game off on the right foot. He was missing his shots but he was getting to the line at an alarming rate and playing his brand of defense which isn't great but at least there was some effort there. The second half was a different story. By the middle of the third quarter it was clear that James Harden would not be performing any miracles. I'm not sure whether it was Andre Iguodala who took Harden out of the game or whether Harden simply ran out of gas. During the second half Harden looked aloof on defense and disengaged in the offense. Harden did set a franchise record tonight for free throws made in a season, so there's that.
Defense, Mother Trucker, Do You Play It?
The Houston Rockets could learn a thing or two about defense from tonight's game. The Nuggets had beautiful rotations and some creative switches between full court and half court presses that kept the Rockets on their toes. The Rockets on the other hand failed to stop the Nuggets for the entire second half. The Nuggets scored 74 points in the paint and had zero trouble doing it. The best offense in the world is not going to compensate for the kind of defense the Rockets played tonight. Fatigue (perhaps fueled by a lack of sleep, altitude woes, or both) was a major component in the defensive melt down and back to back road trips that end in Denver can do that to any team.
A Note On Forwards
There has been a lot of conversation and concern about the lack of a clear starter at power forward going into the end of the season and likely the playoffs. Daryl Morey trashed McHale's entire power forward rotation at the trade deadline and Greg Smith, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, and Thomas Robinson have all been given a chance to try to fill that void. With the post season looming in the near distance surely the Rockets will need to make a decision here. The honest truth? Houston is in pretty good shape right now without a clear answer in the starting lineup at power forward. Kevin McHale has four young guys fiercely competing for those minutes and he's been pretty good about adjusting his substitutions to favor the hot hand. I think match ups are going to determine who goes where going forward and I'm on board with that.