After winning the first two games against the Houston Rockets this season, the Denver Nuggets expect to see a different focus from the visitors from South Texas when they take the court tonight at the Pepsi Center.
Houston (12-12) has finally worked its way back to the .500 mark after a dreadful start to the season that saw the Rockets begin 0-3 and eventually fire head coach Kevin McHale. Part of that 0-3 start was a 20-point season-opening loss to the Nuggets at home. The Nuggets were also victorious in Houston’s previous trip to the Mile High City, grabbing a 107-98 decision on November 13 that was part of a four-game losing streak for the Rockets.
Since slicing that streak, however, Houston has found its footing, going 7-3 in its last 10 games. James Harden has averaged 36.0 points in his last two outings and led a smothering Rockets defense that accounted for 20 steals against Brooklyn.
“We have to rely on our defense. It creates steals when we pick up our defensive pressure,” Harden said after shootaround on Monday morning. “That’s how the offense is going to get going. It’s tough for any team in the league if you don’t get stops to win a game.”
Harden said he believes Houston is getting back to the brand of basketball that caused many to cast them as a favorite to knock off the Golden State Warriors as Western Conference champions before the season began.
“We’re getting easy buckets. When you play really good defense as a team, you create turnovers and everyone feels good about themselves,” Harden said. “You’re getting easy layups. Everybody is scoring. You feel good about yourself and want to keep doing it. That’s what we’ve been relying on in these games that we’ve been winning.”
Seeing a revitalized Houston team gain its confidence has caused Denver head coach Michael Malone to focus on stopping his team from turning the ball over and giving Houston easy points in transition.
“This team is scary in transition,” Malone said. “They’re a great transition team. In our two wins, we’ve only given up 13 fast-break points a game against them, which is terrific. Their defense has improved. That’s been an area of concern for them because their defense hasn’t been where it needs to be. We’ve played well because we’ve taken care of the ball and not allowed them to beat us in transition. We’ve executed for great shots and we’ve defended. We have to do the same thing tonight.”
Malone believes his team’s defensive intensity will be a key against Harden and the high-powered Rockets.
“James can get it going. He’s been playing at a very high level since they changed their starting lineup and put in (Patrick) Beverley and (Clint) Capela into the lineup,” Malone said. “In the two games we’ve won against them, we’ve been able to execute. We turned the ball over a little too much but our offensive execution, our ball movement and our defense has been at a very high level.”
Capela sat out Monday’s shootaround after not feeling well and will be a game-time decision. Denver, meanwhile, will be without rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay (ankle) and forward Darrell Arthur (knee).