HOUSTON – Monday night was get-back night for the Nuggets, who were in Houston to face the Rockets for the second time in three nights. At least they’d hoped it was.
For three quarters the Nuggets fought, carved out small leads and put themselves in position to steal a very important game. But the Rockets opened the fourth with a flourish and then got a James Harden layup with 2.4 seconds remaining to snatch a 125-124 victory at the Toyota Center.
It was a heartbreaking result for the Nuggets, who can now see Portland clearly in the rearview mirror for the eighth spot in the Western Conference playoff race. That lead is now down to just a half-game with just over three weeks left in the season.
The game had somewhat of a defensive edge in the first half, but quickly turned into a scoring frenzy in the second. And the statistics were impressive. James Harden put another 39 points on the board and added 11 assists and seven rebounds. Gary Harris led the Nuggets with a career-high 28 points. Nikola Jokic had a near triple-double with 22 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists.
But trying to beat the Rockets in a shootout, at the Toyota Center, is one of the toughest tasks in the NBA. Unlike in the game between the two teams on Saturday night, the Rockets were deadly from the 3-point line, hitting 17 after making just five two nights ago.
With that back in the Rockets’ arsenal, they were able to hold off the hard-charging Nuggets, who took the lead late, but could not hold on.
The Flow: The Nuggets wanted to spread things out on the offensive end, and that’s exactly what happened. Better court spacing resulted in open driving lanes, and Gary Harris took full advantage, scoring nine of the Nuggets’ first 13 points. Add in two assists, and Harris accounted for 15 of the team’s first 18 points. Undaunted, the Rockets just fired away from 3-point range – and they were hitting the mark. The Rockets made 4-of-8 from the arc and forced eight Nuggets turnovers. They cashed those in for 11 points and led by seven after the first.
The Nuggets recommitted themselves to defense in the second quarter, and they turned things around. The opened the second with a 12-3 run and took the lead. Offensively, the Nuggets got contributions from all over, most notably from Emmanuel Mudiay, who came off the bench and lit it up, scoring eight points in six minutes of action. Harris continued to roll as well, putting in seven more points to finish the half with 18 points. But getting stops was the spark. Houston made just three of 12 from the arc in the second and as held to just 39 percent from the field. The Nuggets had a 65-62 lead at the half.
Defense, for both teams, was not the flavor of the third as the game dissolved into a shootout. The Nuggets and Rockets combined to score 64 points, make 23 field goals and seven 3-pointers. Five players scored at least seven points. When the dust settled on all of this, the Nuggets still had a three-point lead going into the fourth.
The Rockets got rolling from the 3-point line in the fourth, going on a quick 11-2 run all fueled by shots from behind the arc to start the period. The Nuggets answered and were able to take a lead with under a minute remaining, but Harden hit a layup with 2.4 seconds to go to give the Rockets the win.
Deciding run: The Rockets scored nine straight points to start the fourth quarter. That became an 11-2 run eventually, and it provided all the space Houston needed to fend the Nuggets off.
What it means: The Nuggets are now just a half game ahead of Portland for the eighth seed.
Nuggets standouts: Gary Harris had 28 points. Nikola Jokić finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. Will Barton had 24 points
Stat of the game: 27: The Rockets scored 27 points off of Nuggets turnovers.
Next: The Nuggets return home on Wednesday for a game against LeBron James and the NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers.