DENVER (AP) — Rule No. 1 in defending James Harden: Throw different looks at him.
Rule No. 2: See above.
At least, that was Denver’s highly effective blueprint.
Nikola Jokic had 27 points and 12 rebounds, Denver played smothering defense on Harden and the Nuggets beat Houston 105-95 on Wednesday night to snap the Rockets’ eight-game winning streak.
“You have to have rules against James Harden,” Denver coach Michael Malone explained. “You can’t play him with your standard defense. Great player defense is required for great players.”
So, the Nuggets tried a little bit of everything to contain Harden, even rolling the 7-foot Jokic out high along with another defender.
The variety of schemes did the trick — as much as it can against Harden. Houston’s star playmaker finished with 27 points, snapping his string of eight consecutive games with 36 or more. He was 8 of 16 from the floor as the Rockets were held under 100 points for the first time this season. They were averaging an NBA-best 119.5 per game.
“We were locked in,” said Jokic, whose team is 7-0 this season when keeping an opponent below 100 points.
Still, Jokic found it funny that his team was being lauded for “stopping” Harden.
“That’s crazy when a guy scores 27 and it’s bad,” Jokic said. “We know he’s going to score. He’s going to be aggressive. Just make it harder and try to be there. ... Just to give them different looks.”
It worked — this time.
“They just double-teamed every possession,” Harden said. “They got lucky. They got away with one. We didn’t execute how we needed to.”
The Rockets struggled from 3-point range, hitting 12 of 38. They did make at least 10 for a 71st straight game dating to last season.
Russell Westbrook finished with 25 points on 8-of-22 shooting and Clint Capela grabbed 21 rebounds.
“We had open shots,” Westbrook said. “We just didn’t make them.”
Will Barton scored 15 points, while Torrey Craig and Juancho Hernangomez provided boosts off the bench as Denver’s reserves outscored the Rockets’ backups by a 32-21 margin.
One of the key sequences came in the third quarter, when Paul Millsap blocked Harden’s shot and Barton turned it into a dunk on the other end. That energized the Pepsi Center crowd and sent the Nuggets on a pivotal run.
It’s not easy making things difficult for Harden, who's seen just about every defensive scheme imaginable.
“He’s one of those guys that when you’re watching film it’s like watching a horror movie,” Malone said. “He’s that talented.”
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni sees Jokic in the same sort of category as Harden or Westbrook in being difficult to contain.
"He's going to do what he does. Same as James,” D’Antoni said. "I don't care what they do to James — if he has a good game, it's because of James. If he has a bad game, it's because of James. Same with Russell. There are a few players that are that special."
Trying not to foul Harden is easier said than done. He drew a foul on a 3-pointer the Nuggets challenged, believing he kicked out his left leg, but the call on the floor stood. Harden was 7 of 10 from the free throw line.
“He's a master at drawing the foul," Malone said. “They changed NBA rules because of James Harden.”
Nuggets: Host the Boston Celtics on Friday in the second game of a four-game homestand.
NBA WEDNESDAY CAPSULES
Giannis Antetokounmpo poured in 33 points and Eric Bledsoe added 28 in the Bucks’ fifth straight win, 135-127 against the Hawks. It marked the league-best ninth time this season that Antetokounmpo, the reigning NBA MVP, has had at least 30 points and 10 rebounds. Rookie De’Andre Hunter finished with a career-high 27 points and Trae Young scored 25 in Atlanta’s fourth straight loss.
Lou Williams scored 27 points and Kawhi Leonard combined with Paul George for 42 points in their first game together as the Clippers rallied to knock off the Celtics, 107-104 in overtime. George provided 25 points and Leonard added 17 before blocking Kemba Walker’s potential tying 3-point attempt. Los Angeles improved to 9-1 at home by rallying from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit.
The Heat top the Southeast Division at 10-3 after Duncan Robinson set a pair of Miami 3-point records to lead a 124-100 rout of the Cavaliers. Robinson was 9 for 15 from the field, with all those shots coming from behind the arc. The second-year pro set team marks with seven 3-pointers in the second quarter and eight in the first half before finishing with 29 points.
Fred VanVleet provided 24 points and Pascal Siakam added 18 with 11 rebounds as the Raptors ended the Magic’s three-game winning streak, 113-97. Raptors rookie Terence Davis scored a career-high 19 points to help Toronto improve to 6-0 at home. Orlando lost center Nikola Vucevic and forward Aaron Gordon to right ankle injuries in the second quarter.
Ben Simmons hit the first 3-pointer of his career and finished with 18 points and 13 assists to lead the 76ers to a 109-104 victory over the Knicks. Mike Scott's fourth 3-pointer of the game with 1:29 left stretched the Sixers’ lead to 99-95. Joel Embiid had 23 points and 13 rebounds, and Scott scored 12 points.
Luka Doncic scored 33 of his 35 points in the first half of the Mavericks’ 142-94 laugher against the Warriors. Doncic was 10 of 11 from the field, including 6-for-7 from 3-point range. He also had 10 rebounds and 11 assists in his league-leading seventh-triple double of the season despite playing only 25 minutes.
The Jazz pulled out a 103-95 win at Minnesota as Bojan Bogdanovic contributed 30 points and Donovan Mitchell added 26. Bogdanovic was 6 of 11 from 3-point range, and Mitchell 5 of 10 to help Utah rebound for a home loss to Minnesota Monday night. Minnesota led by six in the fourth quarter before Utah used a 12-0 run to take the lead for good.
The Nets downed the Hornets, 101-91 behind Jarrett Allen’s 22 points and 17 rebounds. Taurean Prince and Spencer Dinwiddie added 20 points apiece for Brooklyn, which was without Kyrie Irving for the third straight game because of a right shoulder injury. Terry Rozier had 18 points and Devonte’ Graham added 17 in Charlotte’s second consecutive loss.
Detroit suffered its fifth straight loss as Lauri Markkanen scored 24 points to bust out of a slump and lead the Bulls to a 109-89 romp over the Pistons. It was Markkanen’s first 20-point game since scoring 35 points on opening night. Wendell Carter Jr. had 12 points and 15 rebounds as Chicago ended a three-game skid.
Bradley Beal shot 9 for 9 while scoring 21 of his 33 points in the third quarter of the Wizards’ 138-132 shootout over the slumping Spurs. Ish Smith and former Spur Davis Bertans each had 21 points for Washington, which had the worst record in the East at 3-8. DeMar DeRozan scored 31 for the Spurs, but he missed two free throws with 9.9 seconds left as the Spurs dropped their seventh straight for the first time in 23 seasons.