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Houston Rockets vs. Denver Nuggets game preview

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

After a string of nine-game dominance against the Denver Nuggets, the team from Mile High took down the Houston Rockets in their last meeting, 136-122.

I remember watching that game, and I’m still not sure what happened. Defense was completely optional, which should have favored Houston, who were at the point of the season where they weren’t playing any defense anyway. Houston scored 43 points in the first quarter. Denver scored 48 in the second. Clint Capela was hurt and Nene was also ailing, so Houston’s only defense for Denver’s MVP candidate Nikola Jokic was Kenneth Faried.

It didn’t go well.

Jokic scored 31 points and missed three shots. He grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out nine assists. There’s been times against Houston that Jokic has looked pedestrian. Part of that is due to Capela’s ability to run centers off the court, but Houston also likes to swarm post players in order to get them to give up the ball to 3-point shooters.

Denver shoots a respectable 35.6% from deep. They take around 31 attempts from deep per game, which comes out to 11 makes per night. For comparison, Houston jacks up 45 and makes 16 of those suckers every night to the tune of a similar 35.1% clip.

That night in Denver, the Nuggets hit a bit of an outlier. It’s easy to point to their 73% from 2 and say, “Well Houston’s defense was bad at the time so that makes sense.” And to an extent, sure it does. But look a little deeper. Denver missed two midrange jumpers. They made seven. As you know, that’s exactly the shot Houston wants teams to take.

“Sure, AK. Whatever. They made seven midrange shots. Who cares? Even if they shoot 40% from there (their season average from the midrange), that’s only three extra misses and they still win by eight.”

Stay with me here.

If we remove a 70-foot end-of-quarter heave from Mason Plumlee (and I’m sure he wishes we would), then the Nuggets shot 14-30 from deep. If Denver had shot their normal percentage, they hit 11. Even without removing the Plumlee heave, 11 is their normal number. That’s nine points off the board. Combined with the six midrange points from earlier, that takes 15 points off the board total, and oh look at that suddenly Houston is in front.

No, I’m not stupid. I know that’s not how basketball works. Again, Denver won that game and earned it. They attacked the basket and got open looks from deep, which contributed to their stellar shooting numbers, mostly due to Jokic’s gravity inside and Houston’s poor perimeter defense. In fact, I have no idea how Houston was in the game at all other than maybe Denver feeling sorry for them and letting them score. But you have to think that Houston probably sees that game as a one-off. A “tip your cap to them” game rather than an “oh no they figured us out” game.

A couple of weeks ago, this game looked like it would have monster implications. Houston was surging and Denver looked a bit vulnerable. Now, it’s just a game Houston needs to try to push for third place in the West while Denver looks to stay tied in the loss column with Golden State for the top seed (the Warriors hold the tiebreaker there). As for Houston, a loss would drop them to 29 losses, just ahead of the surging Los Angeles Clippers and Utah Jazz. Utah’s closing schedule is as soft as advertised, though they do get the Nuggets and then the Clippers (at Staples) to end the season. The Clippers are in Milwaukee tonight, but then finish with five of their last six at home, including that Utah game that looks massive. Oh, and their one road game is three nights earlier at Oracle against a Golden State team that might need to keep winning to stay ahead of these Nuggets. Seriously, combined with Houston closing at Oklahoma City, those last few nights of the regular season are going to be must-see television. Unless they’re Players Only games on TNT. Then you can miss them and be grateful you did.

Lastly, I’m getting tired of hearing the same crap over and over about Denver. All I hear from every corner of the internet and ESPN’s gaggle of “experts” (if any of these guys have degrees on their walls, I haven’t seen them) are the same tired talking points: “Yeah, the Nuggets are great and deep and Mike Malone is a great coach. The only problem is I personally don’t think they have the experience to go deep in the playoffs.” And they always emphasize the “personally” part, like it’s their opinion and no one else agrees. Literally everyone says the same thing. It’s not your personal opinion if everyone agrees with you. Also, who cares about experience? The Nuggets are good. Period. If they lose a game on inexperience, that’s one game. Malone won’t let them lose a second one.

Sorry for the rant. I cannot imagine being a Nuggets fan this season and listening to that garbage over and over. I would break my television. They’re so good and no one wants to give them any credit. It’s ridiculous.

Tip-off is at 7pm on NBA TV