Both the Denver Nuggets and the New Orleans Pelicans played last night and it showed, but the Pelicans had more energy late and kept both their composure and their counter-punching stamina in a game that featured 27 lead changes and ended with New Orleans walking away the victor, 101-95.
The referees let the players plan on for the most part, with 26 free throws between the two teams, and several members of the beleaguered Pelicans squad responded to the three-point and fast-break flow of the game. Luke Babbitt had 22 points, Toney Douglas netted 20 and Tim Frazier had 17 as Denver could stop neither the threes (13-for-29 for the Pelicans from beyond the arc) nor the paint points (42 points) and were out-rebounded by 11. Darrell Arthur tied his career-high with 24 points but by the end of the game Denver was settling for perimeter jumpers they were not making and relying on Faried to fight for 1-on-3 rebounds - which he actually got. He just couldn't get enough.
The game started off as a slopfest, from the start. Nobody scored over the first 90 seconds until Gary Harris hit a three, then a step-in 2. Two blocks on the same possession by JaKarr Sampson was a nice touch but turnovers and bad shots by both teams made for some ugly basketball. The Nuggets had a slight 7-5 at the eight-minute mark after an airball by Harris. Luke Babbitt had 10 of the first 12 for the Pels as he started off on fire, but Mudiay's sweet tip in tied it up and then his fastbreak dunk put Denver up by two:
Denver looked active in their half-court interior defense but looks can be deceiving. The Pelicans hit four of their first five threes, most of them wide open, and their transition defense was terrible. Mudiay hit a three but the Nuggets didn't get back on defense and a Pelicans dunk gave New Orleans the 23-22 lead. Mudiay got his second foul as the two minute mark approached and ended his half in the first quarter with 7 points and 3 boards and the bench players hit the floor en masse. They couldn't slow the New Orleans attack either, with the Pelicans notching 10 assists on 13 made buckets and shooting 62% from the floor to take a 31-26 lead after one.
The second quarter was the Darrell Arthur show for the Nuggets and he had 12 points in the half. It was 6-to-1 in turnovers a few minutes into the second quarter, but that line was actually in Denver's favor for once. The Nuggets hit 10-of-12 shots during one stretch of the second and got the lead out to 50-44 for Denver, but then the ugly turnover monster reared its head again with five in the span of three minutes. That helped New Orleans hang around in the middle part of the quarter and they retook the lead at the end. The quarter ended on a charge from Harris and with Denver trailing 56-54.
New Orleans opened the second half with a turnover while Denver ran a Jokic-to-Faried lob for the first bucket of the quarter was pretty sweet:
A Harris steal and dunk gave Denver the lead, but Faried's misses inside were brutal. Malone had to burn a could of timeouts as the Nuggets were disorganized, down 63-61 and Jokic wasn't looking to score. Mudiay hit a couple of threes but Malone's timeouts couldn't fix the defensive woes. Jokic hit a pop shot and a three and Denver briefly retook the lead, but it wouldn't last. The teams kept exchanging buckets but more of Denver's bricks allowed a 7-0 run and a 77-72 lead for New Orleans as they wanted the boards and the buckets a little more. Arthur came back in and hit a three, then Barton got fouled on a three and made all three free throws, and miraculously Denver ended the quarter up one, 78-77 in a quarter that was extremely defense-optional.
Arthur opened the fourth with another bucket, but even his incredible scoring for the night couldn't provide a consistent offense for Denver. It was a very perimeter-oriented offense for both squads but the Pels put together a 7-0 run for an 84-80 lead, then out-fought Denver's bench for a bunch of offensive rebounds. Denver ran a really short group for a stretch with Darth at the 5 and Toupane at the 4, which didn't help matters. Barton had his dunk blocked on one side by Jordan Hamilton and Tim Frazier took it back down the court on his own fast break to finish a three-point play and New Orleans went up 89-82, a ;ead they would never relinquish. Barton looked tired during his 0-for-8 from the field, and the whole team simply stopped penetrating to the hoop even once the starters (sans Jokic) went back in. Both teams stayed small to finish the game but the Nuggets never really challenged New Orleans in the paint over the last few minutes and Faried's return helped out on the glass only because he was willing to fight through half the Pelicans' squad to get the rebounds he wanted. Barton's final transition three-point chuck with just over a minute left clanked, and a late 3 by Frazier threw the dagger at 99-91. 101-95 was the final, but it definitely didn't feel that close at the end. Denver simply didn't have the energy to chase down that last run from New Orleans once the perimeter shots stopped falling.
Malone's end-game adjustments were strange. With a team that obviously didn't feel like driving and a center (Jokic) who only played 20 minutes, it seemed like re-introducing that dynamic would help with rebounds as well as paint penetration and a PnR game that vanished in the final quarter in favor of dead-legged chucking. That never happened though and after an exhausted Arthur left the court the Nuggets last gasps of offense did as well. If it was an experiment I'm not sure what Malone was trying to discover.
When New Orleans was big he stayed small and got eaten alive on the glass, and when the Pelicans were small at the finish he remained small and let the game be decided by his uber-guard lineup with Faried at the center position. It was very much a George Karl look, and odd to see for both the bench and starting units in the final frame.
It felt like watching a Summer League game. I understand that from the Pelicans side; they're practically a pick-up game at a summer playground as it is, with a bunch of guys who've barely played together. But the Nuggets didn't have any more chemistry than them, and while both teams shared the ball (28+ assists for both) that's more a reflection of the defense that was absent than any great chemistry by either squad. It felt like New Orleans was playing for something, even if that something was pride and the hope of a contract for next season somewhere in the league, and Denver was merely playing out the string. That helps our draft chances, but can't make Malone happy. I expect some speeches about pride coming from him shortly.