Harden deals Den­ver heart­break­ing loss

Hous­ton star’s 39 points in­clude game-win­ning layup

The Denver Post - - SPORTS - By Nick Kos­mider

ROCK­ETS 125, NUGGETS 124

For the se­cond time in three nights, the end­ing of a game be­tween the Rock­ets and Nuggets came down to one player driv­ing to the rim with a chance to lift his team.

The dif­fer­ence Mon­day night: a po­ten­tial MVP was play­ing the role of closer.

James Harden fol­lowed up a triple­dou­ble that in­cluded 40 points by go­ing coast to coast for a go-ahead layup with 2.4 sec­onds left that handed the Nuggets a 125-124 loss at the Toy­ota Cen­ter.

Den­ver’s loss trimmed its lead for the fi­nal play­off berth in the Western Con­fer­ence to a mere half game over Port­land.

“I felt like Usain Bolt,” Harden said of his hero’s fin­ish. The Nuggets felt sick. Den­ver had a shot at a win­ning play of its own, but Nikola Jo­kic’s side­line in­bounds pass to­ward the rim for Ma­son Plum­lee was knocked away, send­ing 16,080 fans who helped foster a play­off at­mos­phere into a eu­phoric state.

“This is a tough loss,” Plum­lee said. “We played re­ally well down the stretch and gave our­selves a chance to win, but we just couldn’t pull it out.”

This felt like the post­sea­son. With three weeks left in the reg­u­lar sea-

son, Den­ver al­ready is in must-win mode as the race for the West’s fi­nal play­off berth clasps tighter than the rat-tat of a snare drum.

And it felt like the play­offs be­cause two teams that score bas­kets as well as any in the NBA kept trad­ing hay­mak­ers.

The ad­van­tage went to the team with a player who is com­fort­able throw­ing knock­out blows. Harden fin­ished with 39 points, and the Rock­ets needed all of them in what Nuggets coach Michael Malone called “a shootout at the O.K. Cor­ral.”

Will Bar­ton, whose would-be game-ty­ing shot in the clos­ing sec­onds Satur­day bounced off the rim, nearly found re­demp­tion Mon­day. He hit a 3-pointer to pull the Nuggets within two points with less than a minute left. Then he com­pleted a tough three-point play to put Den­ver up 124-123 with 42 sec­onds left.

The Nuggets had the ball af­ter a Harden miss with un­der 10 sec­onds left and a chance to seal the game. In­stead, Jameer Nel­son’s way­ward jumper fell into Harden’s arms and the guard was off to the races. The Nuggets never found Harden as he coasted straight to the front of the rim for a vir­tu­ally un­con­tested score.

“They don’t call a time­out be­cause they know Harden has it against a de­fense that is in tran­si­tion, re­treat­ing,” Malone said. “It’s a great time to at­tack a team, and we never got him un­der con­trol. We never got in front of him to square the ball up.”

As if scor­ing 79 points in two games wasn’t enough, Harden bat­ted away the Nuggets’ last lob at­tempt to se­cure the vic­tory. The loss dropped the Nuggets to 3-9 in one-pos­ses­sion games.

“I put a spin on the ball, but the ball just fell down and came up short,” Jo­kic said. “I think it was a good play, but we didn’t make it.”

Gary Harris had a ca­reer-high 28 points for Den­ver. Jo­kic had 22 points, 13 re­bounds and eight as­sists. Bar­ton added 24 points, eight as­sists and seven re­bounds.

The Nuggets cor­rected the two ma­jor mis­takes that plagued them dur­ing Satur­day’s loss. Af­ter miss­ing 11 free throws at home, Den­ver hit 18-of-23 on Mon­day.

But new is­sues cropped up. Namely, the 3-point de­fense and 21 turnovers.

Still, the Nuggets used an 8-2 spurt to take a 97-94 lead into the start of the fourth quar­ter. Then the NBA’s best out­side shoot­ing team caught fire. The Rock­ets buried 3point­ers on three straight pos­ses­sions at the start of the fourth quar­ter, and the shootout was on.

Den­ver thought it had landed the fi­nal shot. The Beard had other ideas. And he had the ball. It was a heart­break­ing com­bi­na­tion for the Nuggets.

“We’re not go­ing to ac­cept moral vic­to­ries,” Nel­son said. “There’s a lot of bas­ket­ball left.”

Hous­ton Rock­ets guard James Harden scores what proves to be the game-win­ning bas­ket Mon­day night in a 125-124 vic­tory against the Nuggets. Harden scored a game-high 39 points. David J. Phillip, The As­so­ci­ated Press

Nuggets rookie guard Ja­mal Mur­ray tries to keep the ball from Hous­ton Rock­ets guard James Harden on Mon­day night. Mur­ray scored 13 points. David J. Phillip, The As­so­ci­ated Press

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