Quietly, the New Orleans Pelicans are 11-6 in their last 17 games. After starting the 2019-20 season with a putrid 6-22 record, many counted them out of the 2020 playoff race. Now that Zion Williamson has returned and many of their players have started to roll, they have become a formidable opponent for the entire league.
Combine those factors with the injury issues enveloping the Denver Nuggets right now, as well as an 0-2 record already against the Pelicans due to poor effort and matchup problems, and the Nuggets appear to be in an extremely precarious spot heading to the Bayou tonight.
Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, and Mason Plumlee won’t play tonight, while Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. are various levels of questionable. Nikola Jokic is rolling right now, but there’s only so much one player can do. Will Barton has had spurts of spectacular play, but he can’t do everything either. Reinforcements in the form of Harris and Porter would be welcomed with open arms, but even they may not be enough to defeat a suddenly tough Pelicans team.
Who: Denver Nuggets (30-14) at New Orleans Pelicans (26-16)
When: 6:00PM MST
Where: Smoothie King Center. New Orleans, LA.
How to watch/listen: Altitude TV and KKSE Altitude Radio 92.5FM
Rival Blog: The Bird Writes
PG: Monte Morris vs Lonzo Ball
SG: Will Barton vs Jrue Holiday
SF: Torrey Craig vs Brandon Ingram
PF: Jerami Grant vs Zion Williamson
C: Nikola Jokic vs Derrick Favors
*Matchups assume Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. either don’t play or come off the bench in return
Three Things to Watch:
Nikola Jokic in the post against Derrick Favors is a tough matchup for the Nuggets. In their Christmas Day matchup, Jokic struggled to generate efficient looks against the stout and smart Favors, who also has the length and athleticism to bother every shot. This was a key battleground that Denver lost last game, and they can’t lose it again. The Pelicans are going to toy with their double-teaming of Jokic in the post and try to force him into tough passes, which their long athletes like Ball, Holiday, and Ingram can pick off for easy turnovers. Jokic will have to score or draw full double teams, or else this could be a high turnover night for the Serbian big man.
Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant defending Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson should be a fun matchup to watch as well. Craig is on the shorter side when defending tall wings, but he didn’t get a chance to guard Ingram on Christmas. He will get that chance this time around, and his defense will be key. Ingram is New Orleans’ best scorer and a potential All-Star this year. Zion Williamson is a different beast entirely, and it will be interesting to see how Grant fares here. Zion reminds me of smarter Julius Randle with the ball in his hands, and Grant struggled to contain Randle 1-on-1 when the New York Knicks last came to town. This is a matchup where having Paul Millsap would be extremely helpful.
Will Denver get injury reinforcements and how capable are they? By all accounts, Michael Porter Jr.’s back tightness is a minor thing, but until he gets back on the floor and proves otherwise, it’s fair to be skeptical of the report. As for Gary Harris...the Nuggets need a better version of Harris than the player who went on the injury report five games ago. His game against the Los Angeles Clippers was encouraging, but the four games prior, he was 1-of-18 from three-point range. The Nuggets need someone who can space the floor on the wing AND play the great defense fans have become accustomed to when watching Harris. Without floor spacing in the playoffs, the Nuggets will lose in the first round. They manufactured some floor spacing with Torrey Craig last time around, but if may not be enough this time depending on who the Nuggets face. Denver is counting heavily on Gary Harris to get back to his roots and shoot a high percentage. If he can’t, things get real dicey real quick.