Moore: The Nuggets’ Slide, the Rockets’ Bounceback and the Team to Buy Ahead of Tuesday’s Showdown
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Garry Harris Jr.
Betting odds: Houston Rockets at Denver Nuggets
- Spread: Nuggets -4.5
- Over/Under: 214
- Time: 9 p.m. ET
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The worst thing about the NBA schedule: You have another game, no matter what, in the next 72 hours. Riding high? Your win streak will be challenged within the next three days at most.
The best thing about the NBA schedule? There’s always another game. No matter how bad you are, there’s an opportunity to turn it around coming right up.
So it is as the Nuggets and the Rockets face one another on Tuesday night in Denver.
A week ago, the Nuggets were riding high, off to their second-best start in franchise history at 9-1. Their defense had been revolutionized and surely, the offense would come around.
Meanwhile, the Rockets were coming off a three-game winning streak but the signs were still rough. Things would get worse and reach a boiling point last Thursday. Oklahoma City, without Russell Westbrook, would run the Rockets right out of the building and down the Red River and back to Texas.
That would spark conversation about Carmelo Anthony, who finished 1-of-11 in that game, and now discussions continue about the Rockets potentially waving the former All-Star.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets have crashed back to earth at meteoric speed. Nikola Jokic faced a controversy stemming from a homophobic remark, and then went into a bizarre funk where he didn’t shoot — almost at all — in consecutive games.
The result was an ugly, miserable loss in Memphis to the Grizzlies. Jokic would then force the issue over and over again vs. the Nets at home, scoring 37 on 22 shots with 21 rebounds. That’s a monster game, and yet it felt like as much of a statement as the one field goal attempt vs. Memphis, and the Nuggets still lost to Brooklyn.
Then on Sunday, Michael Malone inserted Juancho Hernangomez into the starting unit, which sparked the offense, but the defense suffered, and live-ball turnovers returned to plague the team.
Had it not been for the losses to Memphis and Brooklyn, and how weird Jokic’s performance was in those games, the Sunday loss to the Bucks would be forgivable.
The Bucks are among the top two best teams in the East right now, Brook Lopez was a Splash Giant, and the Nuggets coughed up possessions late. It was a coin flip game going into the season, it was a coin flip game going into Sunday night, and even with the Bucks on a back-to-back, it’s not a bad loss. But it was the third in a row for Denver, which means the Nuggets need a win vs. Houston, who has owned them, to get right.
For Houston, the Thunder loss kicked off self examination, and a weekend loss to the Spurs seemed to only reinforce their broken situation.
And then a funny thing happened: They started making shots.
Houston entered Sunday with the 27th-ranked offense and the worst team in the league in effective field goal percentage at 48.8 percent. The Rockets put up a 122 offensive rating and a 62 percent eFG on the Pacers. The dam broke all at once.
So now the Nuggets are in a tailspin, and Houston’s maybe pulling out of it. What happens when two teams pass one another on the NBA schedule pulley?
Denver’s got some internal tension right now. Jokic vacillates between not shooting at all — which comes off as pouting about some unknown frustration with the offense — and shooting every time he gets the ball, which isn’t at all what makes his game excellent.
Beyond that, there’s an issue where if the offense is humming, they’re giving up those live-ball turnovers. One player said “there might be something to” the idea that in order for them to have the requisite energy offensively, it comes with a cost of those turnovers, while coach Michael Malone thought the idea was absurd.
You can rectify that, theoretically, with better execution. But the same can be said for a more deliberate style of offense that controls the ball with more of an emphasis on the defense.
Maybe the most surprising element of what we’ve seen from the Nuggets so far is that while they are good — so good that they sit at 9-4 despite these issues — we still don’t know what their identity is.
It was always a longshot that the gritty, tough defensive team we saw the first two weeks of the season was for real, but we also haven’t seen the dynamic, high-scoring offense. They are one of the worst shooting teams in the league this season.
This push and pull means that there’s a lot more to find out about the Nuggets, but if they don’t find the right balance between the two wildly different versions, there will be more bumps ahead.
THE HOUSTON LONG BALL
I advocated strongly to avoid the Rockets’ win total of 56 before the season, built on the premise that James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela were so good together you couldn’t take the under, but that losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and replacing them with James Ennis, Michael Carter-Williams and Carmelo Anthony meant you couldn’t take the over. That’s played out so far, with an obvious lean toward the under.
The Rockets disrupted the chemistry and continuity of a 65-win team, gambling that their infrastructure could manage it, but so far, that hasn’t materialized.
The vibe was off from the very start and hasn’t improved. Here’s the problem: Their schedule allowed them to rattle off three straight wins against the Bulls, Nets and Pacers, giving them some false confidence.
Houston really did need to get its big-time players going, and that happened. What gets lost in the simple “See, they just needed their good players to not play badly!” is that last year’s team could win games when its good players didn’t play well.
The collective effort of the team under D’Antoni was greater than the sum of even its incredible parts, despite the team being so heavily built on isolation basketball. The Rockets lost some of that with their offseason changes. Their floor was reduced on a night-by-night basis, if not for the season.
It’s hard not to make the very simple connection between Anthony’s absence due to illness, the increasing talk about the possibility of his time with Houston coming to an end, and the improved play.
And that’s why Tuesday’s game may mean so much. The Rockets are coming off their best offensive performance of the season, and now they head out on the road against an opponent that they’ve owned the past several years.
Are the Rockets back? Or will their performances simply vary far more widely than they did last year after all their changes?
A BRIEF MELO NOTE
Since 2016-17, teams with Anthony playing more than one minute have gone 38-55-1 against the spread, according to our Bet Labs data. The Rockets have been outscored by 63 points with Anthony on the floor this season, outscoring opponents by five points when he’s been on the bench.
Anthony was a plus-33 in raw plus-minus last year for Oklahoma City, while the other starters for OKC were all plus-200 or better.
Additionally, with Anthony set to miss Tuesday’s game vs. Denver, it extends a now eight-season streak where Anthony has not won in Denver. He is 0-6 in the Mile High City, having missed several games due to injury.
THE EDGE: Houston Rockets (+4)
The Rockets have torn this matchup to shreds in the past. What will be interesting is how the Nuggets handle the Harden-Capela pick and roll. They’ve had more success against that dynamic with team-ups like Rubio-Gobert this season.
Harden may be in for a monster game with how Denver is more aggressively attacking the ball-handler, as he could draw a huge number of fouls.
Gary Harris seemed to tweak his shoulder vs. the Nets. The Nuggets need him to get going; he’s shooting just 27.4% from 3-point range this season.
It’s easy to point to Houston being on the rise, the Nuggets hitting a rough patch, and side with the Rockets. But this is more about the matchup and how Denver has a lot of hidden issues under the surface.
While the Rockets have more to figure out, four points is too much to lay for a team that has caused shivers up and down the Nuggets’ front office when discussed as a potential playoff matchup for years.