Rockets, Nuggets meet in clash of first-place teams

The Denver Nuggets built expectations for this season with a breakout 2018-19 campaign that brought them within a game of the Western Conference finals.

The Nuggets have been tested early this season but might face the toughest challenge to date in their next meeting.

The Houston Rockets, winners of eight in a row and rolling with James Harden and Russell Westbrook reunited, can serve as a measuring stick for Denver. The Nuggets host Houston on Wednesday night in a matchup of first-place teams.

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The Rockets have needed little time integrating Westbrook into the offense after acquiring the guard from Oklahoma City in the offseason. Some thought it would be a problem having two ball-dominant guards on the floor at the same time, but through 14 games the plan has worked.

Harden is averaging 39.2 points, 7.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds while Westbrook is averaging 21.6, 7.1 and 8.4 and still piling up triple-doubles. He got his third of the season Monday night in a rout of Portland.

There has been no sign of ego clashes, and Westbrook only had praise for Harden after the win over the Trail Blazers.

"I think that a lot of people like to normalize greatness when you see it over and over again, but it's not normal because there's nobody else that can do it," Westbrook said. "If it was normal, everybody would do it. He's put himself in position to be one of the best offensive scorers of all time because of the way that he's able to score the ball at a high level in a variety of ways."

Denver also has a unique player in center Nikola Jokic, arguably the best passing big man in the NBA. The 24-year-old poses matchup problems for opponents because he can score in the post and behind the arc, and if doubled, he will find the open man.

Jokic has chemistry with all of his teammates, but he and guard Jamal Murray have developed a productive relationship. Through 12 games, Murray has assisted on 27 of Jokic's made baskets while Jokic has returned the favor on 23 of Murray's buckets.

Murray has struggled with his shot, but had a breakout game in Memphis on Sunday with a season-high 39 points in the blowout win over the Grizzlies. Jokic scored only nine points on seven shot attempts but unlike previous games the Nuggets didn't need him to be aggressive to win.

Even when Jokic and Murray aren't scoring big, Denver can rely on its deep roster. Will Barton, Paul Millsap and Gary Harris are capable of big offensive nights and that creates issues for opponents.

The Nuggets' depth is also a problem for other teams. The bench has struggled to score in the early going so head coach Michael Malone has inserted forward Juancho Hernangomez into the rotation, and the young Spaniard has responded.

He also earned praise from his teammates for his attitude while not getting out of his warmups for seven games.

"He's one of the best teammates I've ever had," Murray said. "He's always the first one to stand by the bench and clap for his teammates and cheer. He's always talking, even if he can't talk English."

--Field Level Media

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