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Recap: Nuggets survive against New Orleans, keep playoff hopes alive

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Gary Harris came up with a clutch steal as the Nuggets won 134-131.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In a hard fought, high scoring affair, the Denver Nuggets needed an all-around effort to beat the New Orleans Pelicans 134-131. Danilo Gallinari led the Nuggets with 28 points, while Gary Harris put in 23 points. Nikola Jokic had 21 points, 12 rebounds, and 4 assists, but it was Harris coming up with a big steal down the stretch, putting the Nuggets up three points and just out of reach of the Pelicans. Anthony Davis had 41 points, while Cousins added 30 points, 14 rebounds, and nine assists in a losing effort.

The Nuggets went into the game without key contributors Jameer Nelson and Will Barton, while Darrell Arthur also missed the contest. This was the first time Denver saw the dynamic duo of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, and the game started very sloppily on the part of Jamal Murray. In the first three possessions, Murray turned the ball over twice, showing some rookie tendencies on both the offensive and defensive end. He calmed down though and let Danilo Gallinari and Nikola Jokic go to work offensively. They led the Nuggets offense early, and the Pelicans matched them step for step with Cousins and Davis. After the first timeout, the pace slowed down considerably, and both teams went through a dry period offensively. Wilson Chandler came in and hit his first shot, a three pointer, and Jokic had a really nice driving layup against Davis.

Both teams were slow overall though. Emmanuel Mudiay came into the game and had some really nice passes, but the Nuggets continued to be inefficient overall. Wilson Chandler saved them a bit with a second three pointer, but the Pelicans lead at the end of the quarter 31-27.

The Nuggets started the second quarter with Mudiay and Murray playing together, but it was Wilson Chandler continuing to fill up the stat sheet, leading the offense off the bench. He’s clearly the designated lead scorer off the bench, and the role suits him well. Cousins continued giving Plumlee issues on the other end, with Cousins getting away with a bit of extra contact. Mudiay struggled at times, but overall, his rotation was very strong, getting to the free throw line, making his patented fadeaway jumper in the paint. Plumlee wasn’t always converting at the rim, but he was doing yeoman’s work on both ends, being the main screener, battling against Cousins and Davis inside, and grabbed rebounds everywhere.

Mudiay finally got a contested layup to go in, leading to an And-1 opportunity. The Nuggets went back to a Mudiay-Harris-Gallo-Faried-Jokic lineup, and the 5-man lineup put in points at a high rate, getting back the lead over New Orleans for a brief period. The Pelicans took a timeout at the 3:00 minute mark, and on their next six trips down to the Nuggets side of the floor, they scored points all six times for 13 points. The Nuggets couldn’t quite keep pace, and the score going into halftime was 75-69 Pelicans. Holy scoring.

Regardless of how well the Nuggets play offensively, they can’t give up 56 percent from the field in a half and expect to win the basketball game. Cousins and Davis combined for 35 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and four blocks in the half. Jokic had just eight points on 4/11 shooting. At least three of those misses were due to being blocked by Davis as well. This tweet by Chris Marlowe sums it up well:

Faried’s lower back tightened up during the first half and he was unable to play for the rest of the game. Plumlee started in his place and hit a nice bucket to start, followed by an all-out superman dive on defense trying to grab a loose ball. He clearly wants this game. He scored eight points in the third quarter, pacing all Nuggets players in the quarter in an all-around effort. Both teams went up and down the court, and while Davis and Cousins continued to put in work, the players around them slowed down just a touch.

After a timeout, both offenses continued to get good looks. Jokic made some plays against Davis on the block, Gallo continued to assert himself offensively, and Murray continued to look better with the ball in his hands overall, setting up some nice passes on the perimeter and in the interior. On the other end, what is there to say other than the Brow looking dominant in all facets? He had 37 points after three quarters, and only a Gallinari three saved the Nuggets, keeping the Nuggets within three points of the Pelicans at 105-102.

In the fourth quarter, it was Murray and Mudiay generating offense for the Nuggets, scoring the first seven points on solid jump shots and giving Denver the lead back. It didn’t stop there though. Denver went on a 17-5 run to begin the quarter, led by Mudiay, Murray, and Gallinari. Plumlee also played some really nice defense on Cousins during this period.

Coming down the stretch in crunch time, the Nuggets defense tightened up mostly. They played with the urgency needed for a playoff run, and while they weren’t always successful, they closed out hard on shooters and contested shots at the rim. Jokic played a major part on the defensive end by grabbing a ton of defensive rebounds down the stretch. That being said, the offense slowed down, going away from Jokic and having some key misses.

After a layup by Davis on one end to cut Denver’s lead to just two, Jokic drew a foul on the other end with 38 seconds left to go. He went 1 of 2 at the line to extend the lead to three. Plumlee subbed in for Jokic for defensive reasons, and the man he was guarding, Cousins, drilled a three pointer with 30 second left to tie the game. Just inexcusable. Chandler came into the game and got fouled, but he too made just 1 of 2 free throws with 18 seconds remaining. The Nuggets were saved by a Jrue Holiday turnover with 15 seconds left though. Mudiay subbed in, was fouled, and made 1 of 2 free throws again. Gary Harris took a foul, and then stole the ball in a timely way at the end. He was fouled, and made...you guessed it...1 of 2 from the line. It was just enough though, as Jrue Holiday missed the final bucket, giving the Nuggets a HUGE win 134-131.

Takeaways

Emmanuel Mudiay has played two solid games in a row

After playing well in Miami, Mudiay started out a little cold from the field, but his drives to the lane consistently generated open looks for the Nuggets. When he started shooting better in the second half and playing slightly better defense, the whole package came together. He had 15 points and 7 assists on 5/15 shooting. The field goal percentage isn’t desirable, but he just looks much better. If he continues playing like this, he will eventually earn back a spot in the rotation permanently. For now though, let’s just enjoy him coming off the pine and helping the Nuggets in a positive way.

Defense is optional

Both teams combined for over 260 points in just 48 minutes tonight. In a must-win game for Denver, this is kind of hard to stomach. Yeah, Faried went down with an injury after the first half, but Denver gave up 75 points by halftime. They tightened up in the second half, but over 55 points in the second half still isn’t great.

Living to fight another day

The Nuggets played ugly defense, but they were good enough when the going got rough. They earned this victory in New Orleans to stay alive in the playoff race. All seven players that played major minutes scored in double figures, and the bench play was a clear strength for Denver, scoring 46 points compared to New Orleans’ 25. They really need to clean up the free throw shooting down the stretch, as going 6/8 or 7/8 down the stretch puts this game away earlier. That’s the Nuggets in a nutshell though: make things interesting.

Your move Portland. Every Nuggets fan is now a Utah Jazz fan.