3-pointers: Takeaways from the Rockets' win against the Nuggets
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15), Houston Rockets forward PJ Tucker (4) and Clint Capela (15) reach for a loose ball during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
The Rockets had already checked off the part of long winning streaks that requires teams to win when not their best. But that was against overmatched opponents better served to consider draft position than the benefits of beating one of the league’s best teams.
The Nuggets were a hot team fighting for playoff position and playing at home where they are particularly tough. Yet, the Rockets could still have some issues uncharacteristic of their play in the winning streak and roll along, anyway.
In this case, the problem was turnovers. Averaging 10.7 turnovers in the first 11 games of the streak, the Rockets had 19, including a run of five turnovers in six possessions in the second quarter. That helped keep the Nuggets in the game. Denver’s fourth-quarter scoring kept it tight. But with the game on the line, Chris Paul and then James Harden made plays, Paul and Joe Johnson hit free throws, and the winning streak moved to 12 games.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden drives to the basket against Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler (21) during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
1. Facing a choice between defending the Rockets as they had in the first two meetings and going with anything else, anything else was the obvious choice. The Rockets had hit 37 3-pointers in the first two meetings, building leads that reached 35 and 48 points. The Nuggets did not want more of that, so they went with a switching defense that generally kept defenders on the Rockets 3-point shooters. The problem with that was that it put defenders on James Harden that had no chance. Harden could beat big men off the dribble to the rim. If they sagged off him to defend the paint, he happily put up 3s. Harden is not only the league’s top scorer, he is so far in front in scoring in one-on-one situations that he outscores any other two players, excluding teammate Chris Paul. He does that with the usual array of moves and crossover dribbles. But he also is hitting 3s better than he ever has since he joined the Rockets in 2012, making 38.6 percent of his attempts. The idea of changing a defense to take away 3s from the rest of the Rockets gave a green light to a shooter that has made more 3-pointers than anyone in the NBA. The Rockets have five players – Harden, Paul, Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green and Ryan Anderson – hitting better than 38 percent of their 3s. P.J. Tucker is close behind, making 36.9 percent, 46 percent in the 12-game winning streak. Facing a choice between giving up open looks to a bunch of hot shooters or a hot shooter leading the league in scoring, the Nuggets took their chances against one, instead of many, which was one too many to be stopped.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) goes up to shoot against Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee (24) and Malik Beasley (25) during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
2. The Nuggets were customarily angered by the reach-in fouls called against them while defending James Harden, but there would have been a solution more likely to work than getting angry at the officials. If they wish to not be called for reaching on Harden, they should not reach. Most teams have made that adjustment. Harden does not get anywhere near as many of those calls as in past seasons, especially when coming around high screens, a tactic he used often last season. But the Nuggets were reaching in isolation. Harden was fouled three times while shooting 3s, twice on reach-ins. Chris Paul drew another foul against a defender reaching out to touch him, as he nearly does every game as soon as the Rockets are in the bonus. But if any team should know it is their job and not the officials’ to avoid those fouls it should be the Nuggets. In past seasons, the Nuggets were outstanding at keeping their hands back on Harden. They avoided the shooting fouls on drives when other teams were watching him march to the line. On Sunday, Harden took 16 free throws. He averages more than 10, leading the league, but the increase was not because of the three guys on the receiving end of the Nuggets’ shouts. As many players have said, ‘if you reach, I teach.’ The adjustment necessary was clear.
Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza (1) and Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) reach for a rebound during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)
3. If the standings remain unchanged, which is exceedingly unlikely, the Rockets would face the Nuggets in the first round. They have swept the season series against the Nuggets, including a pair of blowouts. But the Nuggets are not likely to be a team anyone would want to see in the first round. They have an explosive offense, an unstoppable star (Nikola Jokic) and a star player (Paul Millsap) coming back from injury in plenty of time to be ready for the postseason. The Nuggets are likely to move up. The Jazz, the Rockets’ opponent in the second half of the back-to-back on Monday, are likely to move in to the playoff pack and would be at least as unwelcome a first-round opponent. But at this stage, with the eighth-place Nuggets just 2 ½ games out of third, and the third-place Spurs and fourth-place Timberwolves dealing with significant injuries, it is impossible to predict how the standings will look when the regular season gives way to the postseason. The Rockets like to say they concern themselves only with their own play. Though they just finished their sweep of the team they now are lined up to play in the playoffs, that might be the only way to look at the standings as February comes to an end.
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