DENVER — Mercifully for the Nuggets, they don’t have to play the Rockets anymore.
Four matchups in the first 23 games of the season? That’s more than enough. Three was enough. But in one last clash added to the schedule a week ago after they were eliminated from the In-Season Tournament, the Nuggets sputtered on offense for a half and defense for one quarter in a 114-106 loss to Houston on Friday night at Ball Arena.
Denver (14-9) trailed 103-78 with 8:26 remaining but mounted an 18-0 run to get within seven with three minutes remaining. The Nuggets had the ball with a chance to cut it to five, but Alperen Sengun’s chippy defense against Nikola Jokic forced a turnover with 2:32 left. Houston finally scored by getting to the line at the other end, and the Nuggets ran out of gas as Jokic waged war with the officiating crew for how Sengun was defending him in crunch time.
This was the Nuggets’ first home loss since Game 2 of the NBA Finals in June. It’s the first time they have ever lost a Western Conference home game with Jokic, Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. all playing. The Rockets snapped an 0-8 start away from home. They were the NBA’s last winless team on the road this season.
The Nuggets finish 1-3 against Houston in 2023-24.
They entered their 10th game at Ball Arena leading the league in offensive rating (125.3), shooting (52.3% from the field) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.59) in home games. But none of that mattered in a first half that was sluggish offensively other than brief scoring burst from Murray. After opening a 14-7 lead, the Nuggets went on a three-minute scoring drought as Sengun engineered a 13-0 run. A cutting Peyton Watson bucket snapped the skid, but from there, Denver was playing from behind the rest of the night.
Sengun finished with 17 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists to aid Jalen Green’s 26 points, while Jokic’s struggles Wednesday in Los Angeles carried over in a 9-for-26 outing from the field. He went to the halftime locker room with one assist and a 1-for-10 shooting mark, having missed 20 of his last 22 shots and 31 of his last 38 going back to Wednesday.
His team was fortunate to be trailing only 52-48 in spite of that, thanks to a Kentavious Caldwell-Pope circus 3 to beat the halftime buzzer. But the Rockets worked Denver’s starters in a 40-point third quarter, shooting 14 for 18 from the field and 6 for 8 from 3-point range. The lead ballooned to 25 before Jokic finally got going and spurred the comeback with an 11-point fourth.
On the night Nugget-turned-Rocket Jeff Green received his NBA championship ring in a pregame ceremony, Denver’s bench managed to hang with Houston’s. Watson, building on his recent defensive gems that garnered new trust from Michael Malone, led the second unit with 13 points, four rebounds and two assists. He earned his way onto the floor alongside Denver’s starters during the furious fourth-quarter comeback.
Porter and Murray both received technical fouls in the last four minutes after reacting angrily to foul calls. After Murray’s first technical with 41 seconds remaining, he thought he was fouled during Denver’s ensuing possession. He yelled at the referee, “That’s a foul!” and the referee waited for Porter to make a 3-pointer before stopping play and ejecting Murray. Porter’s 3 before the technical cut the deficit to 110-104.
©2023 MediaNews Group, Inc. Visit at denverpost.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.