James Harden finished with 31 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds and 3 steals, and the Houston Rockets overcame some sloppy lulls to defeat the Denver Nuggets 110-104 and officially clinch the third seed in the Western Conference.
Harden’s shot was still a little wonky, as he went just 8-19 from the field, but the Rockets featured a balanced attack that saw five of the eight rotation players finish in double figures. Nene had 16 points, Trevor Ariza finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, Clint Capela also double-doubled to finish with 15 points and 11 rebounds, while Eric Gordon had 11 points, despite just shooting 2-14 from the field.
This wasn’t the smoothest performance by the Rockets, but a win is still a win. Houston was up by as many as 17 in the first half, before letting Denver claw back into the came as the Rockets often do. The Nuggets closed the second quarter in a 17-9 run to get within 59-50.
The Rockets then missed 13 of their next 16 shots and then gave up a 10-2 run to Denver to allow the Nuggets to creep ahead 73-71 in the third, but Harden took over down the stretch to avoid the huge upset.
With no Ryan Anderson and no Sam Dekker, Houston toyed with their rotation some, and even went so far as to get experimental by starting Troy Williams to see if he could keep things going after his breakout against Phoenix. Unfortunately for Houston, that seems to be a one-game aberration, as Williams mostly struggled, going for 4 points and 3 rebounds on 2-6 shooting in 16 minutes of action. He did do this though:
The Rockets will be anxiously awaiting Anderson’s return, and head coach Mike D’Antoni believes the stretch four should be back to get a game or two in before the playoffs start.
The Nuggets were led by Danilo Gallinari’s 23 points, and they also got 17 from Gary Harris, 16 from Wilson Chandler, and 12 points and 19 rebounds from Nikola Jokic. They fall to 37-41 and are now a full game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the final playoff spot in the West.
The Rockets, on the other hand, are free to play their final four games however they see fit. They move to 53-25 on the year, and with the third seed on lockdown, just have to get through the final four contests unscathed.
They play again on Friday, back at the Toyota Center against the Detroit Pistons. On paper, it’s a win, but we all know Houston has struggled this year with mediocre Eastern Conference teams, so thankfully, the game matters very little to the Rockets’ fortunes.