DENVER -- On the back of a 40-point effort from Most Valuable Player Candidate James Harden, the Houston Rockets suffered through one ice-cold half of shooting to rally and defeat the Denver Nuggets 109-105 in front of a raucous Pepsi Center crowd.
After shooting just 1-11 as a team from three during the first half, the Rockets, mainly behind Harden exploded for 29 points in the third and 28 more in the fourth, to jump in front of the Nuggets down the stretch.
Denver went 6-11 from the line in the fourth and squandered what could have been a signature win amidst the battle for the eighth seed in the Western Conference as Will Barton's runner with five seconds remaining and the Nuggets down two missed.
"We push it and Will gets all the way to the rim," Michael Malone said describing the sequence. "He gets a pretty good look."
Jokic, who picked up his fifth foul a couple minutes into the fourth, finished with 16 points, five rebounds, and four assists in just 22 minutes.
"Nikola getting in foul trouble is tough enough," Malone said. "When you couple that with no Wilson Chandler, no Gallo, no Darrell Arthur, it's even tougher."
Limiting the Rockets from three was Denver's No. 1 priority on defense heading into tonight's matchup. The Nuggets did contain Houston's shooters throughout the first quarter as the Rockets opened shooting just 1-8 from the field.
Houston's 41 percent shooting from the field in total allowed Denver to keep pace at 26-all even though Jokic picked up two fouls in the opening eight minutes.
That defensive effort continued in the second quarter as Houston shot just 1-11 from three in the first half. The Nuggets were up and into their men and running Rockets shooters off the three point line. Mason Plumlee was key again, as Jokic picked up his third foul mid-way through the second quarter and only played 11 minutes in the first half.
Hernangomez, who started a second straight game in place of Danilo Gallinari (left knee bone bruise), scored 13 first-half points on a clean 4-6 shooting and hit on all three of his attempts from distance.
It was a typical first half for Denver on the offensive end of the floor. Besides Jokic's foul trouble and limited time spent on the court, the Nuggets' offense was humming. Nelson finished the half with nine assists and played 22 of a possible 24 minutes as the Nuggets went into the half with a 56-51 lead.
Jokic picked up his fourth foul, on a debatable offensive foul call, with just under two minutes gone in the half and things looked grim for Denver.
In the third, Harden really got going. The MVP candidate scored 18 points in the quarter on 6-9 shooting and hit 2-5 from distance. Houston outscored Denver 29-18 in the quarter, as the Rockets out-rebounded Denver 13-9 and opened up a six-point lead heading into the fourth.
But Jokic picked up his fifth foul at the 9:33 mark of the fourth with Denver trailing by eight. He was tagged about by Plumlee as the Rockets cut the Nuggets' lead to seven a minute later.
The second of two consecutive steals by Murray moved Denver to within two with just under five remaining.
But the Nuggets missed 3-4 from the line in the next two minutes. Then, back-to-back threes by Jokic and Nelson moved Denver to within two with three minutes remaining.
Things stayed tight until a Will Barton runner with five seconds left on the clock was off, as Harden's two free throws iced things for Denver.
"That's the shot we want him to take," Nelson said.
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. Denver hopes to get Gallinari and Chandler back in the coming days.
Denver plays in Houston Monday before returning home to host the Cavaliers Wednesday.