HOUSTON — In many ways, the Nuggets game at Houston, the last on their road trip, was the most dangerous.
First off, it was a team featuring an MVP candidate – James Harden – that had beaten the Nuggets in all three previous meetings. Next, it was on Day 10 of their five game, coast-to-coast road trip. On top of it all, it was the second of a back-to-back.
The Nuggets fought, but fell 110-104 to the Rockets on Wednesday night at the Toyota Center. In the end, it was took much Harden to overcome. He scored 15 of his game-high 31 points in the fourth quarter, and nearly collected his 21st triple double with 10 assists and seven rebounds as well.
The series against the Rockets has been one of the most heart-breaking of the season. The Nuggets lost all four games, but the final three were by a combined total of 11 points and they had legitimate chances to win all three. But the Rockets made plays late in all of them to pull out the victories. Harden was in the middle of it all each time.
He scored 15 straight points to put Houston over the top. No other Rocket scored a point from 6:05 in the fourth until Eric Gordon’s free throws with 24.8 left the game.
So the Nuggets, who had a two-game winning streak snapped, fall back to a full game behind the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Portland faces Minnesota on Thursday night at home.
The Flow: The Nuggets played 10 players in the first quarter, as it was apparent early on that fatigue was an issue. The Nuggets did get off to a quick start, carving out a 12-7 lead with 7:34 remaining in the quarter. And then, the Rockets pushed the pace and went on a 16-4 run to take a 23-16 lead. They’d push that lead to 11 by the end of the first quarter, which the Rockets led 36-25.
The deficit got deeper before the Nuggets began to chip away at it in earnest. Houston built a 17-point advantage about halfway through the second. The Nuggets, however, went on a 17-9 run to end the half and had the lead down to nine 59-50 at halftime. Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, two of the most consistent Nuggets on the road trip, were the only two in double figures with 13 and 10 points apiece.
A 13-5 run to start the third go the Nuggets back to within one point, 64-63. And from that point, on, the Nuggets looked like they got their legs back. Offense was crisper. Defense was a lot more tenacious. Gary Harris took over from an offensive standpoint. He scored 10 points in the quarter and the Nuggets took a 71-70 lead on one of his layups. But the Rockets closed the final 3:21 on a 9-2 run and had and 85-79 lead going into the fourth.
The fourth quarter was a back-and-forth affair, neither team shooting the ball well as things turned physical. The Nuggets leaned on the ball movement and cutting that is a staple of their offense. The Rockets leaned on Harden. Harden brought Rockets home.
What it means: The Nuggets are now a full game behind Portland for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
Deciding run: The Rockets outscored the Nuggets 12-7 in the final 4:25 of the game.
Nuggets standouts: Danilo Gallinari had 23 points in the game. Gary Harris had 17 points. Wilson Chandler finished with 16 points, and Nikola Jokic had 12 points, 19 rebounds and nine assists.
Stat of the game: 20: Houston took 20 more free throws than the Nuggets in the game.
Next: Thursday is an off day for the team. They get back to action on Friday against the New Orleans Pelicans.