For the second time in three nights, the Denver Nuggets fought admirably but lost their way down the stretch against the Houston Rockets, who prevailed this time 125-124.

The Nuggets had a golden opportunity to put this one away. They had the ball and a one-point lead with the clock ticking down under 20 seconds, but an overly cautious approach on offense led to a badly missed long two by Jameer Nelson.

James Harden then quickly went coast-to-coast, weaving past Nikola Jokic, Juan Hernangomez and finally Nelson for the game-winning layup.

In a game that featured several inexplicable defensive let-downs by Denver, this last one put a stamp on a heartbreaking defeat.

Denver’s last-gasp lob on an inbounds pass from Jokic to Mason Plumlee with 2.4 seconds left was off target.

Ballgame.

Given recent history, the Nuggets are in a positively unfamiliar position: Scratching and clawing for the playoffs in mid-March. With the Portland Trail Blazers breathing down their neck, the Nuggets have a tenuous hold on that coveted eight-seed in the West. This late season home-and-home with the Houston Rockets only added to the postseason vibe. The second (Houston) and third (Denver) highest-scoring teams in the NBA lit up the scoreboard again Monday night. But Denver’s defense proved to be its Achilles heel once again.

Your chances against the Rockets – especially in Houston – hinge on those two occasions when Harden gets an extended rest. The Beard sits at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters. A visiting team has to get its best punches in and close the gap when the Most Valuable Player candidate is out. The Nuggets executed in the second quarter, outscoring the Harden-less Rockets 15-7 to erase a Houston lead that had been as many as 13 in the first quarter.

But the Rockets’ second unit flipped the script during Harden’s next rest to start the fourth quarter. Eric Gordon hit two straight triples, followed by a Patrick Beverly three. That nine-point swing put the Rockets up 103-97, as the Nuggets bumbled offensively through three scoreless minutes.

Gary Harris, Will Barton, and Jokic brought the Nuggets back late in the fourth. Harris hit a three that cut Houston’s lead to 106-104 and gave the shooting guard a new career-high of 28 points. Barton had two huge and-one’s on continuation plays, the last of which put Denver up 124-123 with 40 seconds to play. Jokic made plays at the basket and made his free throws as the offense briefly hummed.

But the late-game offensive execution ground to a halt when Denver had a chance to seal the win, thanks to a possession that Michael Malone will surely be playing through in his head on the flight home.

Plays of the Game

Mudiay 3 –

Jokic sweet backdoor dish –

Jokic full court pass –

Murray crazy 3 –

Harris 3 –

Footnotes

Danilo Gallinari (left knee bone bruise), Wilson Chandler (right groin contusion) and Darrell Arthur (left knee soreness) were all ruled out of tonight’s game before tipoff.

There was an Emmanuel Mudiay sighting in the second quarter, as the embattled point guard entered and immediately bricked a mid-ranger. He rebounded, however, with two straight triples and a layup in traffic. Mudiay finished with eight points in ten mostly encouraging minutes.

Malone rolled out an intriguing Mudiay-Murray-Harris-Hernangomez-Jokic lineup in the second quarter that worked well. You play with fire by getting into a running game with Houston, but sometimes that fire can be harnessed into efficiency. When you keep your turnovers in check and get good shots up, the Rockets can be beaten at their own game. The Nuggets in the second quarter high-jacked the flow of the game and got major contributions from guards Murray, Harris and Mudiay, with Jokic playing rebounder and facilitator. That formula had Denver ahead 65-62 at the half.

Jokic finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds, and 8 assists; Murray put in 13 points on 5-8 shooting; Hernangomez finished with 15 points and 5 rebounds.

What’s Next

Denver’s tough slate continues when the team returns home to host the Cavaliers Wednesday.

Dan Fatigato

Dan Fatigato grew up outside of Chicago in the midst of the Bulls championship runs. He moved to Austin, TX, in 2000 before attending CU-Boulder from 2003-07, where he fell in love with the Nuggets. At CU he served as the Sports Editor for the Campus Press and freelanced for the Boulder Daily Camera sports section. After seven years in the enterprise software industry, Fatigato has gone back to his sportswriting roots. Follow his NBA blog at www.downontheblock.co.