The Denver Nuggets returned home after a six game road trip and Nikola Jokic returned to the court after a seven game absence due to injury. For their first game back in the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center they had to face the New Orleans Pelicans, a team that had handily beat them just 5 games prior. Despite some poor defense and a rusty start from Jokic, the Nuggets hung tough all the way to the end and despite big nights from Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, Denver was able to vanquish the Pelicans in OT and get the win 117-111.
TORREY CRAIG with the start. The game started off with a good sign for the Nuggets as Jamal Murray buried his first three and shortly thereafter Wilson Chandler buried a three as well. Denver came out on fire early and quickly got up 11-4 to force coach Alvin Gentry to take a timeout. That worked for the Pelicans who climbed back in the game to tie it at 11 all until Gary Harris hit a three. At the 5:30 mark Jokic made his triumphant return to the basketball court to thunderous applause. It took him about a minute to get his first points but he definitely looked rusty. Davis had it working for New Orleans and they got their lead up to six before coach Michael Malone had to call a timeout of his own. It did not help as Jrue Holiday was getting into the lane to score at will. Out of a NUGGETS timeout, the Pelicans went on a 7-0 run and suddenly Denver was down by 13 which is the same margin they trailed by after the first quarter.
Will Barton got the second quarter started right with a pair of buckets. It didn’t last unfortunately. The Nuggets effort on defense was lacking, rotations were bad, there was little effort to deny penetration and contesting shots appeared to be optional. This meant the Pelicans lead ballooned up to fifteen with 8 minutes still to go in the half. Harris started to work the Nuggets back in it and then Jokic and Murray got back in the game along with Kenneth Faried who likely was getting some minutes to try and spark the Nuggets who looked flat. The Murray-Harris-Chandler-Faried-Jokic was able to get some life back into the team. They pushed the pace and got the lead back under ten but the Pelicans countered right back again (Faried in particular was playing awful defense) and with 2:20 left in the half they were back up by 15. The Nuggets would stop the bleeding there but at halftime they trailed 58-46.
Denver started the second half just like they did the first with Murray burying a three followed by Chandler burying a three. However, as was the case in the first half, defense appeared to be optional and this time it was Rajon Rondo doing the damage for New Orleans. One of the things you have to admire about this Nuggets team is that they don’t give up and tonight was no different. Harris and Murray hit a few buckets and Craig got a nice block and the Nuggets pulled back within 10. It started to feel like a broken record but again, the Nuggets would not defend the Pelicans or even when they did the Pelicans would hit the shot regardless. Between Cousins, Davis and Holiday New Orleans was getting all the scoring they needed. Denver was able to keep pace with the Pelicans scoring as the quarter closed which at least let them remain within striking distance down 86-76 after three.
The Nuggets finally got some momentum as the fourth quarter started and also kept the Pelicans off the scoreboard for the first two minutes of the quarter save for one Davis bucket. Denver got it down to four before the Pelicans found their shooting touch again. Cousins hit a pair of threes to offset the offensive efforts of Trey Lyles and Barton. With the Nuggets down 8 and just over six minutes to go Malone went away from Jokic, who had fully shaken off the rust and was doing regular Jokic things, to sub back in Plumlee. It paid immediate dividends with Plumlee stuffing Cousins at the rim and overall Mason was playing excellent D down the stretch. A Plumlee forced turnover followed by a Lyles putback jam (who was having another huge 4th quarter) followed by another Plumlee forced turnover followed by a Harris three and just like that, the game was tied at 96. After a timeout, Plumlee forced ANOTHER turnover and finished off the fastbreak to give the Nuggets their first lead since 5:32 in the first quarter. Davis wasn’t going down without a fight though. With just over a minute to go he tied it back up at 100. The teams traded a pair of buckets to leave it at 104-104 in the final moments. Coach Malone put Craig back in and had him D up Holiday 1 on 1. Craig didn’t disappoint and he stifled Holiday to force OT.
Um yeah, that'll be a no from Mase. pic.twitter.com/igDxfinZMS— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) December 16, 2017
Denver let Davis get a quick dunk to start the extra period but Barton came back with a big three. Harris’ active hands got a couple turnovers for the Nuggets and they were able to convert one of them into points to keep in front. Harris and Plumlee kept up the phenomenal D and Barton finished off another fastbreak to put Denver up 111-108 with a minute and a half to go in OT. Another Barton three (it was the full out Barton show in OT) got Denver up 6. The Pels got it back down to four but ultimately time started to work against them. When E’Twuan Moore missed a three with 30 seconds left it became a game of fouls. Despite the best efforts of referee Rodney Mott, the Nuggets took care of business and closed out a a big win at home 116-111.
Best Matchup: Gary Harris vs Jrue Holiday
Jrue Holiday loves playing the Nuggets. He had a big game and with the effort and fire being lackluster he pretty much got whatever he wanted. Gary meanwhile was a consistent catalyst for keeping the Nuggets in it. IT was another night where his offensive growth was on full display. He made a few dazzling passes (though some were ruined by the receiver of the pass) and had a couple nice buckets out off some DHO action. His defense was less than stellar until the 4th quarter like everyone else’s and he’s certainly partially to blame for Jrue’s big night but he had a number of huge plays on that end in the 4th/OT to make up for it. Give credit to Holiday too though, he hit shots.
Main thing I noticed: defense, lack there of (until the last six minutes of the 4th)
I know I keep harping on it and if you look at the shooting numbers the Nuggets defense doesn’t look all that terrible but it was so bad. Scott Hastings was talking to T.J. McBride and myself at half time and I thought he had a great point about how when the Nuggets get complacent and lackadaisical on offense, much like they were in the 1st quarter, it carries over to the defensive side. When they are cutting and moving on offense which leads to easy buckets that gets their motivation going and they play tougher D. This seemed especially true at the start of the fourth. The Nuggets started getting buckets and getting out in transition and suddenly their defensive intensity picked up.
Closing thought: Good to get Jokic back
Joker definitely looked rusty to start the game but in the third quarter he got it going and before you knew it he had a double double. He certainly wasn’t perfect and honestly Plumlee outplayed him tonight but that was because Plumlee played phenomenal down the stretch. Still, getting Jokic back is huge and when he wasn’t scoring the Nuggets were still getting points from their guards and Lyles who had carried them so well in Jokic’s absence. Hopefully the Nuggets can put it all together now that the Joker is back because if they do, watch out.