Rockets 109, Nuggets 105 - Rockets Overcome Denver's Altitude with Gutsy Performance

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On the second half of a back-to-back in Denver’s high altitude the Rockets, as expected, looked pretty tired right from opening tip off. The first symptom of this exhaustion was Houston’s outside shooting – the Rockets only made one three in the first half. Houston managed to play good defense and did enough offensively to keep the game close in the first half, but it was clear that fatigue was a major factor in this one.

Aside from Clint Capela, who was very active early, the Rockets starters looked a step slow, and would have to rely on the bench to provide a spark of energy. That spark came from a well-rested Nene, who did not play in New Orleans on Friday, as he contributed nine points and a monster slam dunk that attempted to wake the Rockets up from their slumber.

The Rockets were down by just five points at halftime (56-51), and they managed to tie the game midway through the third quarter thanks to some inspired play from Capela. His energy carried over from the first half and a sequence that saw him convert two alley-oops and block a layup attempt from Kenneth Faried brought the Rockets to life. Houston kept the momentum and managed to take the lead following a Ryan Anderson three-pointer in transition.

Statistically, Harden was having yet another great game, but he didn’t really start to get cooking until the third quarter. The ‘Beard’ scored 18 points in the period, including a couple of much-needed threes. By the end of the period, he had posted 31 points, 10 assists, and eight rebounds and had given the Rockets their biggest lead of the game. Harden suffered a really scary fall, landing hard on his side when he fouled Mason Plumlee on a drive to the basket, but it didn’t seem to slow him down much as he drained a buzzer beating three to give Houston an 80-74 lead at the end of the period.

A few bad turnovers in a row allowed the Nuggets to cut Houston’s lead down to just two points. Another factor that wasn’t really there for the Nuggets in this game was the presence of the NBA’s latest sensation – Nikola Jokic. Jokic is the type of player who would normally give the Rockets fits, and he did in spurts, but foul trouble limited his minutes until the fourth quarter.

Denver’s three-point shooting kept Denver in this game late, as Jokic and Jameer Nelson (who had an excellent game - 15 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds) sank a pair. With one minute left in the ball game, Patrick Beverley fouled Will Barton on a three-point attempt, fouling Beverley out, and allowing Denver to cut Houston’s lead to just one point (106-105). The Rockets responded with a missed three from Lou Williams, but Nene once again battled in the paint to secure the offensive rebound and draw a foul. The Brazilian big man missed the first free throw, but nailed the second to give Houston a 107-105 lead with 41.8 seconds left in the game.

The Rockets dodged a couple of bullets on two of the final possessions as Will Barton missed both an open three and a transition layup. Harden then drained two free throws with 03.7 seconds left to bring his stat line up to 40 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists, and usher in the victory.

The Rockets improved to 13-1 on the second half of back-to-backs, and picked up their first victory of the season when making less than 10 threes (they were just 5/24 for 20.8%). To make up for their lack of shooting, Houston won the rebounding battle (especially in crucial situations) and scored 60 points in the paint. The Centers – Clint Capela and Nene – gave gutsy performances and provided desperately needed energy with their contributions, and six Rockets hit double figures in scoring.

Here’s to hoping Denver’s altitude doesn’t follow the Rockets back to Houston on Monday, when the Rockets will take on this Nuggets team again.

 Game Ball

This is a segment of the game recaps that will give the proverbial game ball to a player that proved to be most valuable to the Rockets on a given night. This award won’t necessarily go to the player that puts up the best numbers, but to the player that made the greatest impact on the team – tangible or intangible.

Saturday’s game ball goes to James Harden.

Harden’s case for Most Valuable Player continues to get stronger as he managed to record his fourth straight triple-double and his seventh 40-point triple-double of the season, a feat that no other player in history can lay claim to. His 18-point third quarter is ultimately what propelled the Rockets to victory in this game, and his performance was as gutsy as it gets, given the context of this game.

Triple-doubles aren’t the most important factor in determining this year’s MVP, but James Harden is making sure that part of his resume won’t be overlooked.

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