HOUSTON — The surging Nuggets weren't going to let James Harden beat them.
The MVP favorite let his Houston Rockets teammates do that instead.
The Rockets snapped the Nuggets' five-game winning streak Monday night with an impressive 125-113 victory to drop Denver's record to 26-12. It was the Rockets' 12th win in 14 games.
Though Harden finished with a game-high 32 points, his 14 assists were equally as devastating as the Nuggets were helpless to contain him. The attention he commanded opened up the floor for the rest of the Rockets, who buried 22-of-47 3-point attempts. The Rockets also held a 34-21 advantage on free-throw attempts, a disparity that appeared to frustrate the Nuggets at times.
Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 24 points and 13 rebounds, and Monte Morris scored 21 points off the bench, but their 3-point shooting (7-of-29) couldn't keep pace.
The Nuggets cut the deficit to 96-89 heading into the fourth quarter, but the Rockets stayed hot from 3-point range with six triples in the final 12 minutes. Despite nine fourth-quarter points from Jokic, Denver was mostly at the mercy of Harden, who seemingly drew fouls on any Nuggets defender within proximity.
The Nuggets' game plan was clear: Attack the paint on offense and try to withstand the Rockets' rain of 3-pointers. Denver succeeded in the former with an 60-32 advantage in points in the paint, but Houston's supply of 3-point gunners was unyielding. P.J. Tucker buried a career-high seven triples, and Gerald Green added six.
If it were up to Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, it's possible the Nuggets would wind up with two all-stars at next month's exhibition in Charlotte, N.C.
"(Jokic) plays at an all-star level," D'Antoni said. "Again, who knows how they choose sometimes? A lot of great guys are left out. I don't think it's ever a slight that if you get left out of the top 12 guys, and you're number 13, it's not a slight. It's just numbers.
"But, yeah, he's played as well as anybody in the league, if not better. Denver deserves somebody. They're No. 1 in the West, which is not easy. They've played great. Yeah, he'd be right there. Jamal Murray's right there too. He's played like an all-star. Again, it's a thing of numbers.
The Nuggets were well aware of the challenges Harden posed after he had scored at least 35 points in 10 consecutive games entering Monday.
"I'm on the plane, I'm in my room last night, I'm watching film on Houston," Malone said. "Each clip I watch, I get a little bit more nervous, because what (Harden is) doing right now, the level he's playing at, the confidence. ... It's really pick your poison. He's playing at a whole other level right now. MVP, all that. It's really kind of historical what he's doing."
Paul Millsap and Gary Harris were back in the starting lineup Monday after each making significant strides since returning from injuries. The only injured starter the Nuggets are still waiting on is Will Barton, who Malone said should return in the "next couple of weeks."
The Nuggets had Harden relatively contained until the 1:49 mark of the first half. From there, Harden proceeded to bury three 3-pointers, including one that left Murray in his wake. Though the Nuggets tried trapping Harden at every occasion, he still got loose for 18 points, seven assists and nine free throws as the Rockets took a 70-60 lead into halftime. The Rockets also benefited from a 27-11 advantage in free-throw attempts.
The Nuggets initially tried taking the ball out of Harden's hands, content to let Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker try to beat them, but those two combined for 34 points over the first two quarters. Jokic was Denver's best offensive option, finishing with 15 points and nine boards in the early going.