By Rob Mahoney
Although the Rockets did a terrific job of keeping their deficit manageable in the first half, the Nuggets dominated the third quarter 36-22 and turned a slight lead into an obvious result. Both teams played out the final frame as a formality, and Houston was ultimately able to trim the final margin to a misleadingly close 95-105 loss -- their eighth in nine games.
• Tape of this game could easily serve as an instructional video, intended to illustrate the value of the live-ball turnover to basketball players of all ages. Denver's army of long-armed pests insisted on getting in the middle of each of Houston's play actions, to the point that one of the most prolific offenses in the NBA was made to look foolish.
The Rockets aren't a particularly incompetent half-court team, but the Nuggets were able to use their speed and size to create the illusion of complete coverage. A cast of Andre Iguodala, Corey Brewer, Wilson Chandler and more were able to inch into driving and passing lanes enough to create a gauntlet of well-positioned defenders with active hands. From that point, the steal was almost inevitable; the Nuggets racked up 13 takeaways for the game, and built up enough defensive pressure to force the Rockets into 10 more unforced (insomuch as there was no direct steal) errors.
Altogether, Denver turned in 28 points off of 23 Houston turnovers, most by way of an immediate and concerted effort to leverage those opportunities in the open court. Every turnover forced was treated as a pivot from defense to offense as opposed to a "stop" -- a mentality that opened up scoring opportunities aplenty for a team fully prepared to sprint back down court on a moment's notice.
There are more explosive teams in transition, but none better equipped for fast breaking from top to bottom than Denver. What the Nuggets lack in perimeter shooting they make up for in early leak-outs, team-wide ball-handling and a daunting number of high-level athletes, and it was that combination that made the young regulars of the Rockets rotations look like wearied veterans at the end of a long road trip.
• Both of these teams feature a new addition in their respective rotations, with Denver's Wilson Chandler suiting up for just his fifth game this season and Houston's Patrick Beverley playing the sixth game of his tour with the Rockets (and of his NBA career, for that matter).
We'll start with Chandler, who may well have been the player of the game on the merits of scoring 20 points and grabbing six rebounds in just 24 minutes off the bench. Chandler was a legitimately helpful floor spacer (2-for-3 from outside) despite his ho-hum career shooting averages (.323 overall, .250 last season), and proved particularly useful when the Nuggets went small to bust a matchup zone defense that the Rockets took for a spin. That's a pretty significant development if -- and this is a big if -- Chandler can project any kind of threat from the three-point line this season. Denver is incredibly short on players that actually demand defensive attention on the perimeter, and so long as opponents are under the impression that Chandler can actually make these kinds of shots consistently, the lane will be that much clearer for drives and passes from Chandler's teammates.
Beyond that, Chandler simply did a great job of scoring in utility situations, and seemed a bit too strong on his drives for Chandler Parsons to maintain good defensive position. The most shocking bit of Chandler-on-Chandler violence came on a straight-line drive from the perimeter in the fourth quarter, in which Chandler subtly nudged Parsons with his shoulder early in his drive to edge him out of position, protected the ball by moving it away from Parsons mid-drive, and finished easily at the front of the rim with no other defender in any position to help. He used his brawn to similar effect to back his way out from under the hoop for a bucket, and combined a variety of approaches and shot types to come within a point of being Denver's top scorer. This is a terrific showing for a player that the Nuggets need to produce for one reason or another; whether he's ultimately deemed to be a movable piece or a necessary part of this team's core, these kinds of nights only help Denver's cause.
• As for Beverley, the Rockets seem to have picked up an NBA-caliber guard out of the mid-season free agent pool (well, the mid-season Euroleague buyout pool, if we're being specific), which is no small feat. Beverley's size will undoubtedly catch up to him on the defensive end (particularly if he continues to share minutes in a reserve backcourt with Toney Douglas, who thereby compounds the Rockets' problems on the perimeter by having to defend bigger guards), but he's given Houston an out-of-the-box boost without having all that much time to acclimate himself to this team or the NBA game.
His speed and shooting already seem to be up to NBA par, and on Wednesday Beverley used his waterbug quicks to generate baskets for teammates on five occasions in 14 minutes. Three of those assists were off of penetration from the top of the floor, a dimension of the game that clearly serves the Rockets well and yet wasn't really an option with Douglas in control of the ball. A cold night from the field (0-3 from beyond the arc) will bring Beverley's three-point percentage down from 50 percent for the season to "just" 40 percent, but he's done a terrific job of converting his spot-up tries from above the break and is in no rush to force attempts.