Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images
The Denver Nuggets are a really good team. At this point, that fact is non-negotiable. But if you’re a Houston fan, you might be excused if you thought they weren’t contenders based on what you’ve seen in recent years.
I’m reminded a bit about Houston’s struggles early in the James Harden Era against the Los Angeles Clippers. Houston started 1-8 against the Clippers with The Beard and most games weren’t close. Sure, the Clippers had a talent advantage, but they seemed to be a puzzle that Houston couldn’t solve. The Clippers would run J.J. Redick around a million screens and torture Harden. Blake Griffin would demolish Houston’s undersized power forwards. DeAndre Jordan would run Dwight Howard off the court. Jamal Crawford would bank in at least five three points with the shot clock winding down. Chris Paul barely had to do anything. Heck, I could have played point guard in those games and the outcome wouldn’t have changed. The games would end in blowout fashion and you would wonder “How in the world can Houston beat a team that is such a matchup nightmare?”
As you remember, the 2014-15 season was a big turning point for the Rockets and Harden specifically. Houston shed a lot of demons that season, winning the Southwest Division for the first time in 21 years. They knocked out their state rival Dallas Mavericks in the first round and slammed shut the Dirk Nowitzki window. Finally, they came back from down 3-1 in the Western Conference semifinals to knock off that same Clippers team that had given them so many problems over the previous years. Heroes came from all sorts of places in that series. Poor three-point shooters Josh Smith and Corey Brewer shot Houston to the most improbable win I’ve ever seen in Game 6. Trevor Ariza went clutch in Game 7 with six triples. And the player with the best +/- in Game 7 was Pablo Prigioni, who was +20 in 20 minutes.
While bringing up that season and series is a fun trip of nostalgia, there was a reason.
To put it simply, the Rockets are the Chris Paul-led Clippers for the Denver Nuggets.
The Nuggets are ascending to heights that they haven’t attained since the Carmelo Anthony years. Yet recently the Rockets have owned them. Houston is 10-1 in the last eleven meetings between the teams. We all know that Nikola Jokic is a stud (and yes, he’s better than Clint Capela), but Houston has had a combination that gives him fits, namely Capela making rim runs and Harden isolating him or forcing him to help on drives. Houston puts a lot of pressure on Jokic defensively and that hurts him just enough offensively to matter.
But the Nuggets are not just Jokic and a bunch of dudes. The odds are that when the Nuggets turn their fortunes around against the Rockets, it won’t be Jokic that sticks the dagger in them, but a group of their ancillary pieces that beat Houston with a thousand cuts. We all know how great Paul Millsap has been in his career and he’s one of those guys that can make up for a lot of issues that teams naturally have. Jamal Murray continues to prove that he belongs in the conversation of best young guards. Gary Harris and Will Barton can shoot the Nuggets back into any game, as can Juancho Hernangomez off the bench. Malik Beasley had a couple of good games against Houston last year. Jeremi Grant has taken the Jason Thompson Award as the player most likely to get two easy dunks against Houston. Michael Porter Jr. is getting to play his rookie year this season and should be fun to watch moving forward. And one of my favorite young players is Monte Morris, who plays like a smaller Mike Conley: under control and good at just about everything.
That’s a long way of saying that the Nuggets have depth. If they hadn’t needed 7 games to beat the Spurs last year, they probably would have handled the Blazers and been the team to advance to the Western Conference Finals. As it stands, this year’s team is better than last year’s on paper due to experience. I think there’s a clear top tier in the West, and Denver is in it. It’s not a matter of if they overcome their Houston problem, it’s when. And when they do jump that hurdle, it’s going to be on the back of their superior depth and overall talent.
Hopefully they don’t solve the puzzle tonight.
Tip-off is at 8pm CT