For just the fourth time all season, the Houston Rockets have found themselves on the wrong end of a final score.
The Denver Nuggets took out their Western Conference counterparts at home on Wednesday night, 105-95.
In what could ultimately be a playoff preview, Nikola Jokic and Will Barton came up big time for Denver. Meanwhile, struggles from star guard Russell Westbrook as well as the Rockets’ now suddenly thin bench doomed the road team.
Here, we look at the biggest winners and losers from this huge Western Conference clash Wednesday evening at Mile High.
Winner: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
This MVP candidate was back up to his old tricks against what has been an improved Rockets defense. Jokic finished the evening with 27 points on 12-of-19 shooting. The game’s most-skilled big man added 12 rebounds and four assists in the win.
Jokic’s performance was especially notable in that he went up against a defense-first big man in that of Clint Capela, who also had himself a nice game. If Denver can get this type of production from its center, no matter the type of competition, it will loom large moving forward.
Loser: Rockets injuries
Houston is already razor thin out on the wing with Eric Gordon sidelined for a while and Gerald Green likely to miss the entire season. The last thing these Rockets needed was for an improved Danuel House Jr. to go down.
That’s exactly what happened in the third quarter when House was on the receiving end of a hard screen by Jokic.
House ultimately left the game with what was initially described as shoulder soreness and did not return. The former undrafted free agent has been big this season, averaging 11.7 points and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 46% from distance. Let’s hope it’s not a serious injury.
Winner: Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
We focused before on how Capela was a difficult matchup for Jokic. The same can be said for Houston’s big man. He’s a guy that likes grinding it out in the paint and is uncomfortable outside of the box.
This was not an issue on either end of the court. A Most Improved Player of the Year candidate, Capela finished Wednesday evening with 12 points and 21 rebounds on 6-of-9 shooting. As noted above, he now has a franchise record five consecutive games with 20-plus rebounds. That seems good.
Loser: Rockets bench
Injuries have been a major component in terms of Houston’s lack of depth. The team went only seven deep Wednesday before House’s injury.
It then had to insert Chris Clemons, Ben McLemore and Tyson Chandler into the lineup. That trio finished a combined minus-15 in 33 minutes of action. Meanwhile, Austin Rivers scored just seven points and was minus-13 in 28 minutes. This isn’t going to cut it against elite Western Conference competition moving forward.
Winner: Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
With Jamal Murray struggling from the field and Paul Millsap not in a shooting mood, Denver needed some scoring behind Jokic against the high-flying Rockets.
That’s exactly what Barton provided. The underrated guard connected on 7-of-12 shots for 15 points and grabbed a season-high seven rebounds in the double-digit win.
This is what makes the 10-3 Nuggets so dangerous. In any given game, the four other starters outside of Jokic can step up. Unlike the Rockets, depth is the strength of this Denver team. Barton displayed that Wednesday night.
Loser: Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
Westbrook’s final stat line of 25 points, two rebounds and five assists on 8-of-22 shooting does not tell the entire story here. He struggled multiple times on defense against the likes of Barton, Harris and Murray. These lapses are what the Rockets have avoided thus far this season.
We’re also openly concerned about how Russ went to hero ball at times during this game. It’s something he’s surprisingly avoided in doing well to team up with James Harden.
It’s just one game. There’s no reason to panic. But the Westbrook that defined the disappointing latter days of his Thunder career popped back up Wednesday evening in Denver.