Although the Houston Rockets haven't exactly had a season to remember (20-60), they've embraced the opportunity to play the spoiler role. The Rockets have defeated the Milwaukee Bucks, who have the top spot in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics, who hold the second spot in the East, and nabbed a victory against the Philadelphia 76ers, who currently sit third in the East.
The Rockets have also pulled off wins against Western Conference playoff contenders, as they defeated the Los Angeles Lakers earlier in the season as well, who hold the seventh seed in the Western Conference. On Tuesday, the Rockets continued their run of upsets against contenders and/or top-seeds in their 124-103 grubbing of the Denver Nuggets.
The Nuggets essentially used the game as a walk-through, deciding to play both Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, in a game that proved to be a disappointment for the team. Nuggets coach Mike Malone was rather candid after the game, which made the embarrassment even clearer.
"We had a chance to clinch number one tonight and we talked about it this morning, the opportunity at hand. And we definitely did not take that opportunity seriously because the way we played tonight was unacceptable playing like that, this late in the year. If that’s how we’re going to play, we’ll be out in the first round. Easy. Easy.
They were the aggressor, they were the more physical team and (I’m) really disappointed in terms of our effort and our approach tonight. And I speak the truth and me calling us soft tonight isn’t something I’m saying to you,” Malone continued. “I just told our team that and I dared somebody to challenge me that it wasn’t true and no one did because we, as a group, were soft tonight.”
Well then. Tell us how you really feel Coach Malone. Granted, Malone had every reason to be frustrated, as the Nuggets should have been able to walk away with a victory, without rendering the services of Murray or Jokic, but no one would've expected them to lose with them. And definitely not in that fashion.
Did the Houston Rockets expose the Nuggets as frauds?
Unfortunately for the Nuggets, it doesn't stop there, as many in the national media were paying attention, as the game had MVP ramifications. Case in point ESPN's NBA Today crew, starting with Chiney Ogwumike.
"This says alot to me about the Denver Nuggets. If they're trying to win a championship and trying to solidy Jokic as the MVP and get to the Western Conference Finals, you can't beat a Golden State Warriors team without Jokic and then lose to the Rockets.
When it comes to the 4th quarter, that's when playoff basketball is being played. I think they only made one field goal in the first five minutes, while the Rockets went on a 16-4 tear. You can't have that type of effort in the fourth quarter in a game you want to win."
Ogwumike's colleague, Kendrick Perkins, chimed in on the criticism of the top-seeded Nuggets.
"There's no on-and-off switch. They can't be in cruise control. I understand they have the number one seed, but they haven't accomplished a damn thing in the postseason, so you don't have an on-and-off switch because you don't know how to get it done."
One has to ask whether these remarks would be made if the Nuggets wouldn't have lost to the Rockets, and the answer is unequivocally no. And especially not after beating the Warriors without Nikola Jokic.
So unfortunately for Denver, the Rockets may have exposed them as pretenders. The good thing, however, is that they'll have an opportunity to silence the doubters in less than a week.