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Houston Rockets vs. Denver Nuggets game preview

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Rockets are suddenly getting some luck in the schedule, but not the kind that you like to see if you just enjoy watching NBA basketball.

After missing Chris Paul for a month and other pieces for a game here or there, the Rockets have gotten back to full strength. Paul isn’t 100% yet and is on a minutes restriction, but as of this moment the Rockets are not filling up the injured list (knocks on all of the wood available).

Conversely, the Rockets will be facing a team missing one of its top stars for the second game in a row tonight as they face a Denver Nuggets squad that just found out they would be missing Paul Millsap for 2-3 months.

I feel like I say it all the time, but injuries suck. Sure, I understand that the Rockets are gaining an advantage tonight and it’s not like Millsap has a life-threatening condition. Those facts are positive and not lost on me. Still, the NBA is at its best when everyone is healthy and playing their absolute best. I would go into more depth on this, but Xiane said everything I want to say in a much better way than I ever could. I still wish Golden State didn’t exist, but his points are all spot-on.

Now comes the part where I say, “Even without Millsap the Nuggets are a really good team.” Are you ready?

Even without Millsap the Nuggets are a really good team.

With Millsap out, Kenneth Faried is sure to get more minutes. His interior presence and nonstop motor make him a one-man wrecking crew. He will grab at least three offensive boards and get easy buckets from them. All three times it happens I will be pissed off about a lack of effort on the glass or some such issue.

I’m with the Nuggets in that I think Jamal Murray is the real deal. His game continues to impress and he’s just 20 years old. Look out, NBA. What’s more, Emmanuel Mudiay has made a leap this season and is shooting better across the board. His 44% mark from deep is particularly interesting.

Will Barton can score in bunches and is having a career year. he’s also shooting 44% from deep is averaging 15/5/3. A change of scenery has been great for him. He looked lost in Portland for a team that didn’t need his skill set. In Denver he’s been able to get shots up and his confidence is apparent to anyone with eyes.

Gary Harris is shooting 52% from the field and 47% from deep. And to round out the bench and give them more depth at the power forward spot, the Nuggets have Trey Lyles (42% from deep) and Juan Hernangomez (44% from 3).

They also have a guy who’s been poised to get multiple triple-doubles for over a year now.

Okay, how have the Nuggets even lost a game yet? These dudes basically don’t miss. They are fifth in offensive efficiency and 17th on defense. They’re second in offensive rebounding rate and are pretty close to Houston in most statistical areas. If their defense makes the leap they could become a top 5 team.

That’s why the Millsap injury hurts. The Nuggets have a ton of youth and Millsap was the rare veteran free agent that helps a team win now AND in a couple of years.

Oh, and we haven’t gotten to Nikola Jokic yet.

I went to one of the Rockets-Nuggets games at Toyota Center last season. We had great seats in the lower bowl near midcourt. That gave me a great view of a lot of things, including James Harden’s full-court dash and game-winning layup.

Normally, after a game like that you just remember the winner. And that moment was so incredible it should have blocked out most of the rest of the game. However, I vividly remember Jokic, who was outstanding. There’s no other word for his mastery of the offense. Houston had no answer for him. None whatsoever. I know I’ve harped on how quick we are to label guys as “unicorns,” but if you’re not including Jokic in that group then I don’t know if I can trust your basketball judgement.

He had the entire repertoire going that night. And in this new age of pace-and-space, somehow he did all of his damage from the low block. He didn’t shoot some incredible percentage (50%) and he didn’t hit a 3 (of course he’s shooting 41% out there this season), but he was patient and forced the Rockets to make the first move. If they doubled, he kicked out to the open shooter. If Houston left him alone, he backed down his man and made an easy hook/layup. When most young players would panic or get mentally or physically drained, Jokic seemed to get stronger down the stretch. Harden kept doing magical things on one end, only for Jokic to come back down, calmly get position, ask for the ball, get it, and then make winning plays. Jokic didn’t win that night, but he got a fan in me.

I’m beginning to think that the real unicorns aren’t just physical oddities, but rather younger players who aren’t intimidated by their youth. It’s the immediate quality of Ben Simmons or Jayson Tatum that astounds us now. With such an infusion of young All-Star caliber players, we forget that it takes most stars years to get to that level. I think that’s partly why there’s such pressure on Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball to be superstars right now. When you’re a top draft choice, you’re expected to be a star instantly, and that’s just not a fair expectation.

You just don’t expect a unicorn to be the 41st pick in the draft, is what I’m saying. Long live Nikola Jokic.

Tip-off is at 7pm CT