James Harden pulled up from the left wing, sunk one of his devastating 3-pointers and sent the Nuggets on their way to their fourth consecutive loss.
The Nuggets, now 9-5 after Tuesday’s 109-99 defeat at the Pepsi Center, didn’t suffer a four-game losing streak last season.
Harden scored 22 points and tallied 11 assists, including several of the no-look variety that kept the Nuggets’ defense off balance and paced the Rockets’ 55 percent shooting effort. Rockets rim-runner Clint Capela was a terror inside and finished with 24 points on 11-for-15 shooting.
Monte Morris had a team-high 19 off the bench, while Gary Harris and Jamal Murray added 15 each. Despite shooting just 6-of-14 from the field, Nikola Jokic flirted with a triple-double, finishing with 14 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. Despite numerous mismatches in the post, he was never able to assert himself as a consistent offensive presence.
In the third quarter, when the Rockets built an 86-76 lead, Harden carved up Denver’s defenders for eight points and six assists as Harris tried to slow him.
“No one player in the NBA can guard him one-on-one,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of Harden. “It truly takes a team effort, and you have to give him different looks. If you give him a steady diet of one thing, he will get into a rhythm and pick you apart.”
Since Sunday’s loss to Milwaukee, Malone has found himself playing life coach while trying to coax a win out of his team.
“You go 9-1 and you have to guard against guys feeling really good about themselves, and you’ve got to serve them humble pie every day,” he said. “You’ve got to show all their mistakes they’re making to try to keep them grounded, and then when you lose three in a row, you have to guard against negativity creeping in, and all of the sudden second-guessing ourselves.”
One task involved getting Harris and Murray back in their typical offensive rhythm. Harris got hot early before Murray hit several tough buckets in the fourth quarter as the Nuggets were clawing back. One particularly tough step-back cut the deficit to 93-89 with 7:27 left, but Harden continued to pour it on.
With former defensive enforcer Marcus Camby sitting along the baseline as part of the commemorative night, the team reintroduced its fabled rainbow jerseys from the 1980s. And not unlike those fast-paced, run-and-gun years, the Nuggets flew up and down the court, ending numerous runouts with transition dunks while shooting a blistering 55 percent from the field in the first half. The Rockets, who hoist the most 3-pointers in the NBA at over 42 per game, did their part with their typical high-octane offense.
“That’s just the way the league is going right now,” Camby said. “The bigs are expanding their games, stepping out beyond the 3-point line, knocking down shots. You see a guy like (Philadelphia’s) Joel Embiid, Jokic can go out there and shoot 3s. That’s the way the NBA wants it, fast-paced, up-and-down tempo, high-scoring ballgames.”
Camby savored the fact that it wasn’t his role when he was with the Nuggets from 2002-08.
“I had Melo, Allen Iverson, K-Mart (Kenyon Martin), so shots were kind of scarce out there,” Camby joked.
The Nuggets could’ve used Camby’s interior defense as Capela repeatedly capped off lobs from the Rockets’ guards with alley-oop jams.
After a few uncharacteristic games, Harris forced the issue in the first quarter with three 3s and an aggressive, driving mentality that gave the Nuggets an early 30-27 lead.