The Morning After: 8 takeaways from Denver Nuggets’ loss at Houston Rockets

Eric Christian Smith, The Associated Press

HOUSTON — The Denver Nuggets were blown out by the Houston Rockets 125-95 Wednesday night, a game in which Denver trailed by as many as 48 points to drop to 10-8 overall and 3-6 on the road.

Here are eight takeaways from the Nuggets’ loss:

1. Sigh of relief. Nuggets coach Michael Malone acknowledged he was “very worried” when he saw star Nikola Jokic fall to the floor in pain with a tweaked ankle in the first half. The coach immediately flashed to fellow standout Paul Millsap, who had sustained a significant wrist injury two games prior. Jokic added that he thought the injury was way worse when it first happened. In the end, Jokic only ended up missing a couple minutes of game time.

“He comes back and says, ‘Coach, put me back in. I want to play. I want to try it,’” Malone said. “We’re getting our (butts) kicked. He could have easily said, ‘I’m gonna hang out in the back and watch this with my feet in the cold tub,’ but he wanted to get back out there.”

2. Deep shots. Houston’s 18-of-41 performance from 3-point distance came without reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon (calf injury) and Ryan Anderson (illness). And with James Harden going 1-of-7 from deep. Instead, Trevor Ariza was the star from behind the arc, making seven of 10 tries to help him reach a season-high 25 points.

3. No longer the sixth man? Denver went small against the Rockets, moving Wilson Chandler to power forward and starting Will Barton again at small forward. Earlier Wednesday, Malone said who starts in place of Millsap could vary from game to game, depending on matchups. But it sounds like Barton might become a staple in the starting five for the duration of Millsap’s absence.

“We can’t afford to just bring him off the bench when we’re undermanned,” Malone said. “Let him play. He never gets tired.”

4. Turning it over. The Nuggets committed 21 turnovers for the third time this season, tied for their second-highest total through 18 games. And those giveaways led to 36 Rockets points, an extremely high figure. Denver remains last in the NBA in that category at 20.9 points allowed per game, a full point behind 29th-place Golden State. The Nuggets, though, also scored 21 points off of Houston’s 18 turnovers. The Rockets are 28th in the league in opponent points off turnovers, surrendering 19.7 per game.

5. That’s a plus. Random stat: Even in such a lopsided defeat, Nuggets reserve guard Malik Beasley recorded a plus/minus of plus-17 in 8:13 of (garbage) time by totaling nine points on 3-of-5 shooting (including 2-of-2 from 3-point land) and three rebounds. But the most insane plus/minus stat came from Houston’s Luc Mbah a Moute, who racked up a plus-57 in 26 minutes. Per, that’s a new NBA record for a player with 26 or fewer minutes.

6. Murray or Mudiay? Denver’s starting lineup was a legitimate breaking news item Wednesday, given Malone did not reveal who would start at power forward at either of his pregame media sessions. But when that information was released minutes before tipoff, there was another stunning change — Emmanuel Mudiay starting at point guard. Turns out, that was a mistake, with Jamal Murray being switched back into the starting five during the national anthem. Either way, it was quite confusing.

7. Missing Millsap. His injury obviously dominated the line of questioning Wednesday, but it was interesting to observe how Malone’s tone about the subject changed throughout the day. The coach downplayed its severity following shootaround. He enjoyed playing it coy when the local media crew asked (again) about the starting lineup about 90 minutes before the game. But after the loss, Malone acknowledged Millsap is going to be sidelined for a considerable amount of time, and that the Nuggets better figure out how to play without him for the time being.

8. Hello, Tex-Mex. Fun fact: My first job out of college was at the newspaper in Beaumont, Texas, which is located about 85 miles east of Houston. So I spent a fair amount of time here as a (very) young professional while covering various high school state tournament games or when I simply needed to escape to a big city. But I found a new gem of a Tex-Mex spot (thanks to the suggestion of friend and Houston Chronicle columnist Jenny Dial Creech) called El Tiempo Cantina, which serves some of the best fajitas (with queso flameado) I’ve ever had in my life.

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