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HOUSTON -- The Denver Nuggets played so effectively while winning seven of nine games before Saturday night that it was easy to overlook the absence of forwards Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari when the Houston Rockets visited.
And while the Nuggets were strong until the end in a 109-105 loss to the Rockets at Pepsi Center, they certainly missed the contributions of Chandler and Gallinari in what turned into a riveting shootout between two of the top offenses in the NBA.
Houston, fueled by MVP candidate James Harden, operated at full throttle. The Rockets' healthy roster proved vital down the stretch.
"Nikola (Jokic) getting in foul trouble is tough enough, but when you couple that with no Wilson Chandler and no Gallo it makes it even more difficult," Denver coach Mike Malone said of his emerging center, who logged just 22 minutes and was saddled with five fouls.
"We did a lot of good things. Clean up the undisciplined errors we made and hopefully we'll get a different result when we play them down in Houston."
The Nuggets (33-36) and Rockets (48-22) will complete their home-and-home showdown on Monday night in Houston. The Rockets have claimed the first two meetings of the four-game season series, winning in Denver on each occasion and doing so twice on the back end of a back-to-back.
The Rockets improved to a remarkable 13-1 in the second game of back-to-backs this season.
Chandler (right groin contusion) and Gallinari (left knee) are questionable for the rematch. Denver is locked in a dogfight with the Portland Trail Blazers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
The Nuggets entered Sunday 29th in the league in defensive efficiency. Given its struggles on that end of the court and Houston's overwhelming ability to score at the rim and behind the 3-point arc, Denver can't afford to scuffle on offense.
"They made shots and we didn't," Jokic said. "They played really good in that last stretch and we didn't make shots."
The shots the Rockets normally make in victory -- 3-pointers -- didn't fall against the Nuggets, finishing just 5 of 24 from deep to post their first win this season when making less than 10 treys.
Harden helped their cause with his fourth consecutive triple-double and seventh 40-point triple-double this season, closing with 40 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. With Harden making 15 of 17 free throws, the Rockets finished 28 of 35 at the line.
"We have guys that are very adept to drawing fouls," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "They're smart players. I thought it was a great game, both sides. I thought they played well, everybody competed. Nobody was like sharp-shooting 3s and stuff, but we gutted it out and sometimes you have to do that."
The onus is on Denver to develop a superior plan of attack to manage Harden. While the Nuggets had success pressuring the Rockets on the perimeter, they allowed Harden access to the paint time and again. They can't surrender that unfettered penetration again unless they long for Harden to erupt once more.
"I mean that's a tough task for them, though," Rockets forward Ryan Anderson said of Denver bigs switching on Harden out on the perimeter. "We wanted to take advantage of what we can do, obviously. If they're going to switch, we're going to have James attack."