How Would the Rockets Fare Against Nikola Jokic, Nuggets in a Playoff Series?

Michael Shapiro

Daryl Morey is optimistic the 2019-20 season will resume despite the NBA's current coronavirus suspension, and the Rockets general manager has his eye on one team in particular as Houston prepares for a return to action. 

"We are prepping for playing Denver in case we go right to [the] playoffs," Morey said after a virtual watch party for the documentary Where Amazing Happened. "I don’t think we will go right to playoffs, though." 

The Rockets are currently the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference at 40–24, slated to face the Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs if the regular season ended on Monday. And Houston could still face Denver even if regular-season games are held. 

The Nuggets sit three games shy of the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, and they're 1.5 games ahead of Utah for the No. 4 spot. Houston is tied with Oklahoma City at 40–24, with both teams one game back of Utah for the No. 4 seed. The No. 3 through No. 7 seeds in the West remain clustered. There's little guarantee the Rockets face the Nuggets in the first round. But as regular-season games face potential cancelation, Morey's preparation can't hurt. 

So how would the Rockets fare in a potential round one matchup with the Nuggets? Let's dive into the matchup by examining three key questions.

Houston's Big Assignment

Even after Houston passed key tests with wins over the Lakers and Jazz following the Clint Capela trade, a pivotal question still looms over Daryl Morey's big gamble: can the Rockets slow down the Western Conference's best centers? Nikola Jokic would provide an immediate test. 

The Rockets concede they won't be able to completely stop the most talented centers in the Western Conference. Anthony Davis scored 32 points in Houston's road win on Feb. 6, though frankly, Davis' eruption wasn't the worst-case scenario for Houston. Los Angeles' big man needed 22 shots for 32 points. He made just four free throws and zero threes, and LeBron James was held to 18 points. In choosing the lesser of two evils, Houston was able to overcome its interior disadvantage. 

Jokic provides a different sort of challenge. He's in no way the leaper or lob threat that Davis is, and he's not a huge problem on the offensive glass. But Jokic doesn't just fill up the scoreboard with increased volume. He emerges as an elite distributor. The Rockets were able to swarm Davis late in possessions, thriving when the ball was dumped into the Kentucky product late in the shot clock. With the clock ticking down, Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker were able to close in on Davis, forcing a shot in the crowd. 

Jokic sees the double team emerging at a faster speed. He has a prenatural sense for finding cutters, and Denver seems to generate more quality late-possession shots than any non-LeBron team in the West. Jokic is the primary reason. For Houston, letting Jokic approach 40 points can be more palatable than a 25-point triple-double.

Containing the MVPs

The Rockets' decision to acquire Russell Westbrook certainly raised a slate of questions surrounding his fit with James Harden, but few denied Houston's raised ceiling after the deal. For all his flaws, Westbrook won the MVP less than a half decade ago. He remains an elite athlete, and Harden marks the best teammate he's had since Kevin Durant. Morey's move has paid major dividends after Jan 1. 

Westbrook is averaging 31.7 points and 6.8 assists per game since the calendar turned to 2020, shooting 52.7% from the field. And he's shined against Denver of late. Westbrook scored 28 points and added 16 rebounds against the Nuggets on Jan. 22, and he scored 32 points vs. Denver four days later. Westbrook is a menace in transition, burning Jokic and Co. down the floor numerous times in the 2019-20 matchups. Look for Houston to push the pace in a potential series. 

Can Denver contain Westbrook and Harden in the half court? Mike Malone's squad may run into some difficulty. Jamal Murray is an untenable option against either MVP, and he'll likely be hidden on Danuel House or Robert Covington. Don't be surprised if the Rockets hunt Murray with an increased diet of pick-and-roll, similar to how they attacked Steph Curry in previous seasons. 

Malone will likely throw Gary Harris and Will Barton at Harden and Westbrook to start each game, and Torrey Craig should receive significant minutes as an additional defensive presence. Denver has some viable bodies, but it lacks a lockdown backcourt defender. One or both of Houston's MVPs should thrive in a series against the Nuggets. 

Denver's Second Scorer

It's reasonable to trust Jokic's playoff chops despite a small sample size. Though he's been in just two postseason series, Jokic shined in the 2019 playoffs, averaging 25.1 points and 13 rebounds per game in 14 contests. The Serbian center dispatched the Spurs and went toe-to-toe with Damian Lillard, and he thrived late in games despite his doughy exterior. Can Jokic receive enough help in a playoff series? The question looms large over the Pepsi Center. 

Jamal Murray is the most natural choice to be Jokic's co-star, though he battled bouts of serious inconsistency in the 2019 playoffs. Will Barton is more of a complimentary scorer, and Gary Harris' offense has fallen off a cliff in 2019-20. Denver's best chance may ride on the shoulders of an impressive rookie. Michael Porter Jr. hasn't exactly been a model of consistency in 2019-20, though he's shown flashes of star potential, including a 17-point night in a win over Houston on Jan. 26. If Porter's play continues to rise in round one, the Rockets could be in store for a long series. 

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