Two eerily similar teams stepped onto the hardwood tonight destined to showcase an offense heavy spectacle. When the debris was cleared, the Nuggets had bested the Rockets 118 to 110. Houston now sits tentatively at the eight playoff seed in the West with a record of 25-23 and three losses to the Denver Nuggets for the season (five consecutive losses all together). The Rockets left 11 points at the line, couldn't get stops when they were needed, and allowed the Nuggets to go on a crippling 22-2 late game run. Danilo Gallinari (27 points, 4-9 from deep, 4 blocks) was a constant thorn in Houston's side and kept the scoring streak alive during the second half with bail out shots and deep contested jumpers. Despite a considerable advantage, Jeremy Lin (22 points, 5 assists, 1 steal) and the Rockets retaliated with a familiar late game push that cut the lead at one point to just four. In his 31 minutes, Lin was phenomenal and it's curious that he wasn't given an opportunity to answer Denver's the fourth quarter lead until the game was largely decided. The Nuggets returned fire with the help of some unlikely contributors and the Rockets, devoid of any late game defensive pressure, faltered. Tonight's game was mostly a competitive ordeal and the Rockets were treated to some promising dominance from Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik (10 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists). James Harden's 21 point performance was also impressive and his ability to get to the line was a call to arms for the Rockets in the first half of the game.
Chandler Parsons (21 points, 3 rebounds, 3 assists) had a strong run in the first three quarters but dropped the ball a bit in the fourth. Parsons has slowly evolved from a second round Morey steal playing at his ceiling to a legitimate stud. He doesn't get the credit he deserves for how consistant he's been this season on both ends of the court.
It was the Danilo Gallinari lead Nuggets' 22-2 scoring run that started during the third quarter that kept the Rockets from converting a close game to a win. Kenneth Faried had one of his few zero point games in Houston a week ago but tonight his 19 points and 9 rebounds were anything but conservative. Ty Lawson (16 points, 4 assists) and Andre Iguodala (15 points, 6 assists) each added valuable performances.
The Houston Rockets did not start the game playing the kind of defense that set a franchise worst in Utah. In the first quarter, the Nuggets shot the ball at a high clip and matched Houston in turnovers at six. The game was fluid offensively (aside from turnovers) but both teams had three things in common: lots of fast breaking offense, lots of turnovers, and no honest defense.
The Nuggets in particular were really bad about reaching in defensively to stop penetration and Harden made them pay. Harden's ability to throw those Popeye sized forearms at the defense, hold onto the ball in traffic, and make a legitimate shot at a finish is a thing of beauty.
The Nuggets are the best team in the league at scoring the ball in the paint but I don't think that strategy is built to last. Houston's coaching staff spent a lot of time prior to tonights' game working on packing the paint defensively for round three with the Nugs. The game-planning was there but the execution was sub par. Denver finished the half with 32 points in the paint (56 by the end of the game). If the Rockets had a more responsible defensive squad the outcome of tonight's game could have easily ended in a win.
Carlos Delfino got into early foul trouble and the Rockets struggled from the perimeter. The Rockets resorted to attacking the rim and they took advantage of an early dominance on the glass. Jeremy Lin has been a good defensive player since he was signed as a Rocket but he was asked to guard Andre Iguodala a few times tonight, once in the post, and he played some great defense. Houston lead at the half-time buzzer by one point, 57 to 56.
The Rockets charged forward in the third quarter ignoring some unfortunate shooting streaks from Danilo Gallinari. Chandler Parsons took advantage of some porous perimeter defense and before you know it the Rockets had opened up an 11-2 run. Toney Douglas thieved his way to four easy, consecutive, points and had some solid hustle-work. James Harden finished through traffic and drew a foul. Omer Asik gobbled up all the rebounds he was capable of grabbing. Just when things were starting to look up towards the end of the third quarter, the Rockets floundered and Jeremy Lin was quarantined to the bench.
The Nuggets harnessed Kenneth Faried's energy in the fourth quarter and got off to a hot start, quickly reversing the lead. Danilo Gallinari flipped on the nitrus oxide right around the time that Chandler Parsons fouled him on the permitter. Gallinari could not be denied from way outside the arc or otherwise and by the time the Italian Stallion had cooled off the Nuggets had already opened up the run that pushed the lead to an unrealistic margin by the middle of the fourth quarter. The Rockets offense had completely imploded and the only real adjustment Kevin McHale could muster was to give James Harden another crack at changing the momentum.
Jeremy Lin had one of his better games as a Rocket tonight and his effort in the fourth quarter kept the game close until the bitter end. Lin buried a couple of long two pointers and started to get active in Denver's interior. Lin was tiptoeing through Denver's paint, coasting to layups, drawing fouls and not turning the ball over. The run was palpable but with every Linsane layup there was a Miller Time floater or a Gallinari three. When the final few minutes arrived the Rockets were still in a deep hole and there was nothing any individual player was going to do to change the outcome.
The Nuggets have now won eight in a row. The Rockets winning streak is back to zero. With a favorable early schedule in February lets hope Houston can mount a promising playoff push or Rockets fans might be looking at the 14th pick in the lottery for the fourth year in a row.
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