Rockets Vs. Nuggets: Denver Drills Houston, 101-86, Playoff Race Gets Even Hotter

APRIL. 9, 2011; Portland, OR, USA; Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale yells out to the officials during the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden. The Rockets won the game 94-89. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE

The Denver Nuggets moved into sole possession of the No. 7-seed in the Western Conference playoff bracket with a 101-86 win over the No. 8-seed Houston Rockets on Sunday night.

The Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets entered Sunday night's game at the Pepsi Center with identical 32-27 records, a 1-1 split in the season series, possession of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference and a rematch in Houston looming on Monday night. The stakes were (and still are) high for both teams, as the Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz are desperately trying to claw into the playoff bracket and benefit from the cannibalism of the home-and-home series. SB Nation's Tom Ziller set the stage for both matchups in the 2012 NBA Playoffs Enormous Consequences series:

Basically, Houston and Denver are both running from a serial killer who looks a lot like Marcin Gortat, and each team has the opportunity to slip a banana peel under the foot of the other. Who do you trust to do that, Goran Dragic or Ty Lawson?

In this case, the correct answer was to first trust Dragic and then switch loyalty to Lawson. The Rockets pushed the Nuggets hard in the first half, as Dragic, Chase Budinger and Luis Scola combined to score 38 of the team's first 49 points and sink 15 of Houston's 20 field goals. That trio masked the failure of nearly everyone else on the roster for 24 minutes, but when the Nuggets turned up the defensive intensity in the second half it all crumbled away. Denver outscored the Rockets 58-37 after the intermission, as Corey Brewer suffocated Dragic with tight defense and Ty Lawson turned up the tempo on offense to claim an important 101-86 win.

It looked like the contest would wind up a close one, at least judging by the opening two quarters. Dragic disrupted the Denver defense with slick drives, Scola operated adeptly in the post and Budinger sniped away from beyond the arc while the rest of the team stumbled. Things seriously changed in the second half, however. George Karl assigned Corey Brewer to Dragic in the second half, used Kenneth Faried to push Scola out of the paint and emphasized timely closeouts on Budinger. Take a look at the splits for the trio to find out why the offense sputtered in the final two periods:

1st Half 2nd Half Total
Goran Dragic 8 pts on 3-5 FGs, 6 ast, 2 tos 4 pts on 1-6 FGs, 0 ast, 2 tos 12 pts on 4-11 FGs, 6 ast, 4 tos
Luis Scola 14 pts on 6-9 FGs 5 pts on 2-4 FGs 19 pts on 8-13 FGs
Chase Budinger 16 points on 4-8 3PTs 3 points on 1-2 3PTs 19 points on 5-10 3PTs
Rockets 20 pts in paint on 10-22 FGs 6 pts in paint on 3-14 FGs 26 pts in paint on 13-36 FGs

When their three hottest players failed sustain the first half success, Houston imploded by scoring just six points in the paint after the break. Meanwhile, Andre Miller and Ty Lawson pushed the Nuggets into transition and helped to produce 32 of the team's 60 points in the paint during the second half. That's right, Denver scored more interior baskets in either half than Houston did all game. Poor shooting from the Rockets (12-37 FGs, 32.4 percent) allowed Denver to impose its preferred pace and take over the game through a 29-10 advantage in fast break points.

A big run sparked by Lawson's aggressiveness and Faried's athleticism and energy and at the end of the third turned a six-point halftime deficit into a 12-point lead for the Nuggets, and they never looked back. Five Denver players finished in double figures, as Faried (10 points and 11 rebounds), Danilo Gallinari (10 points, five rebounds), Afflalo (20 points), Lawson (20 points, five assists) and Brewer (14 points, four assists) all chipped in for the win. After the game, veteran forward Al Harrington sent some much-deserved praise Brewer's way for terrific defense on Dragic, saying: "He's the sheriff around here. We put him in there to lock people up." Their advantage ballooned to 23 at one moment in the final quarter, and Nuggets fans enjoyed a stress-free finish to an important victory.

Here is how the outcome affected the Western Conference playoff landscape:

WESTERN W L PCT GB CONF
1 y - Oklahoma City Thunder 44 16 0.733 - 31-11
2 y - San Antonio Spurs 42 16 0.724 1 28-13
3 x - Los Angeles Lakers 39 22 0.639 5.5 30-13
4 Los Angeles Clippers 37 23 0.617 7 26-18
5 Memphis Grizzlies 35 25 0.583 9 23-22
6 Dallas Mavericks 34 27 0.557 10.5 24-21
7 Denver Nuggets 33 27 0.55 11 18-25
8 Houston Rockets 32 28 0.533 12 21-22
Phoenix Suns 31 29 0.517 13 21-21
Utah Jazz 31 30 0.508 13.5 21-23

For more on this game Rockets fans should check out The Dream Shake and Nuggets fans should visit Denver Stiffs. For more news and notes from around the NBA head over to SB Nation's NBA Basketball page.

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