DENVER -- The Houston Rockets are a united team mainly because they know what the problem is: defensive effort.
If you had money on Houston winning the first two meetings between these teams, then you better go to the ATM. The Nuggets have defeated the Rockets in their first two meetings this season, and regardless of what happens in the final meeting on Dec. 14, Denver has claimed the season series
It doesn’t matter if you think Denver is better than Houston. It’s not, at least on paper. But on the floor, where it really matters, the Nuggets have been better.
But unlike that 20-point loss on opening night, the Rockets had opportunities to win this game. They just didn’t get it done.
Houston coach Kevin McHale went with a traditional big lineup, sitting Marcus Thornton for Montrezl Harrell at power forward. The Nuggets went small, and when McHale countered he got this: Trevor Ariza 4-of-12 from the floor, Corey Brewer 0-for-2 in 14 minutes off the bench. Thornton, who has been fantastic in a starting role, struggled, going 2-for-8 from the field, including missing all four of his 3-point attempts.
Point guard Ty Lawson, returning to Denver for the first time since being traded during the summer for four backups, missed all seven of his shots. He did have seven assists, but some of those were Lawson bypassing shots and instead kicking out passes to teammates on the outside.
Lawson was not himself the entire game.
“He’s a much better basketball player than what he showed,” McHale said.
Backup point guard Patrick Beverley sprained his left ankle in the first half and didn’t return. He left the locker room with a walking boot and crutches.
James Harden was all the Rockets really had when McHale went small, finishing with 28 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
“Being consistent every play,” Harden said of what’s wrong with the defense. “We showed glimpses of really good defense and then we had spurts of giving up easy transition points or offensive rebounds. Just small things that we can correct. They are major problems, but they are not major things that are out of our hands. We can correct those things. In order for us to get wins, we have to do that, especially on the road.”
Denver outrebounded Houston 46-40 and produced 26 first-half points in the paint. Matching up with Danilo Gallinari proved to be a big problem.
Terrence Jones and Harden had the biggest problems with Gallinari. At times, Harden would sag in the paint trying to help out on penetration of the guards, but passes went to the corner where Gallinari stood and Harden got over late.
With Jones, Gallinari was just too good.
“We wanted to keep Terrence on the court,” McHale said. “But it’s a tough matchup when they go with Gallinari.”
McHale talked about a lack of effort from his team. It seems to be a common theme of this young season.
McHale saw too many players let down off missed shots, and that’s when the Nuggets went to the races. Denver had 17 fast-break points, 15 second-chance points and 12 offensive rebounds.
This Rockets team has to remain patient because there’s a belief things will improve.
“We have to have much more commitment to the defensive end of the floor,” guard Jason Terry said. “If it’s not going for us offensively, we tend to let that affect our defense. It’s where we are right now. It’s good to know the problem. At least you’re aware of it and now you have to do something about it.”
There was a stretch in the fourth quarter when Houston had its chance to steal a win on the road.
Down just one point, the Rockets’ defense failed them and mistakes on offense hurt. A 14-3 run by the Nuggets ended any chance of a Houston comeback, and the run started when Will Barton hit two 3s. After Terry hit a 3, Jameer Nelson nailed a jumper over Harden’s outstretched arm to give Denver a 95-89 lead.
From there it was basically over. When Howard couldn’t handle Harden’s alley-oop pass with about four minutes left, fans started to head home into the cold winter night.
“I just think it was about getting stops,” Jones said. “The whole game is about getting stops, and we didn’t get enough.”
And now the Rockets find themselves on a two-game losing streak after losses to the then-winless Brooklyn Nets and now the Nuggets, two teams that probably won't be in the postseason.
"Any given night we can turn it around," Harden said. "We showed that. We lost three in a row and we've won four in a row. We just have to mentally focus on things we can correct and things we can get better at, and the result will change."