Russell Westbrook, Rockets Lose to Nuggets as James Harden Sits with Injury

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2020

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 26: Jerami Grant #9 of the Denver Nuggets dunks the ball during the game against the Houston Rockets on January 26, 2020 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2020 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The Denver Nuggets earned a season split with the Houston Rockets in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture with a 117-110 victory on Sunday at the Pepsi Center.

The two sides split their four contests against each other, and Nikola Jokic and Jerami Grant spearheaded the latest effort for the Nuggets. Denver has won two games in a row and sits at 32-14 on the season.

As for the Rockets, they are 28-17 after their two-game winning streak came to an end with James Harden sidelined by a thigh injury.


Notable Player Stats

  • DEN C Nikola Jokic: 24 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists
  • DEN F Jerami Grant: 25 points, four rebounds and three assists
  • DEN F Michael Porter Jr.: 17 points and nine rebounds
  • HOU PG Russell Westbrook: 32 points, seven assists, seven rebounds, two steals and 10 turnovers
  • HOU G Eric Gordon: 19 points and three rebounds


Russell Westbrook Comes Up Short in Familiar Role

With Harden sidelined, the onus fell on Russell Westbrook and the supporting cast on the road.

It is certainly a position Westbrook is familiar with from his time on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Kevin Durant left OKC to join the Golden State Warriors prior to the 2016-17 season, and Westbrook responded as the go-to option with an MVP that season, which was the first of three straight he averaged a triple-double.

While he stuffed the stat sheet and carried the offense for extended stretches, he was unable to lead Houston to victory as the primary playmaker.

He forced the issue far too many times, as evident by the turnovers, and the Rockets were unable to take advantage of the open space his drives created with effective shooting. Eric Gordon was an ugly 2-of-10 from deep despite serving as Houston's second-leading scorer, and the team as a whole was just 11-of-33 (33.3 percent).

That was with Westbrook showing restraint from deep and shooting just one three-pointer.

Ultimately, the recipe for success with Westbrook as the No. 1 option is his tenacious attacking of the rim and teammates shooting well from outside around him. There wasn't enough shooting, and the turnovers proved to be an issue as Houston fell on the road.


Nikola Jokic Continues His Impressive Run

Jokic nearly had a triple-double by halftime and finished the job as his team pulled away following intermission.

There aren't many teams that run the offense through the center, but Denver is riding him into the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture. He has double-doubles in six straight games and triple-doubles in two of the last three following Sunday's performance and has proved too versatile for almost every big in the league to stop.

Unlike with Westbrook, Jokic's teammates took advantage of the additional attention he attracts.

Harrison Wind @HarrisonWind

Nikola Jokic just recorded his ninth triple double of the season (third-most in the NBA this year) and 37th of his career. He has the 10th-most triple-doubles in league history at just 24-years-old.

Mike Singer @msinger

Huge sequence right there. Porter, wide open from the 3-point line, begs Morris for the ball. He gives it up, and MPJ gives it right back before Morris sinks one from the top of the arc. Next possession down, Morris drains another 3. Nuggets up 100-93, Morris with 17.

Jerami Grant was largely unstoppable, hitting eight of 12 shots from the field and all three of his triples. Michael Porter Jr. continued his emergence with four made shots from downtown, and Monte Morris helped put the game away with multiple triples down the stretch.

Denver's ceiling will come down to Jokic's playmaking ability, be it his ability to finish from inside the lane, shoot from the outside or create open looks for his teammates. 

He was up for the challenge against a fellow competitor on Sunday.


What's Next?

The Rockets are at the Utah Jazz on Monday, while the Nuggets are at the Memphis Grizzlies on Tuesday.