The Denver Nuggets beat the New Orleans Pelicans 113-106 behind the superstar performance of Nikola Jokic and key two-way play of Torrey Craig. Jokic had 27 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 steals, doing everything for the Nuggets, even though he struggled to hit shots late. Craig was massively important, hitting three of his six three-pointers, grabbing 10 rebounds, and getting a key stop on Jrue Holiday late. Zion Williamson was impressive in his second professional game, but the Nuggets survived his athletic exploits in a key road win.
With the return of Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets changed up their starting unit, going with no true point guard and starting Harris, Will Barton, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, and Nikola Jokic. Denver did this to combat New Orleans’ size at the forward positions; however it was still Zion and Ingram who gave Denver trouble early. Denver’s big advantage came when Zion left the floor, as both Grant and Jokic gave Ingram several problems.
Porter Jr. entered at the 6:29 mark in the first quarter, one of his earliest entrances off the bench this season. Immediately, he struggled tracking players off ball on the defensive end, and the shots weren’t falling on the other end initially until a face-up three in isolation. Torrey Craig made up the difference spacing the floor, hitting both of his three-point attempts. Between some contributions from every Nugget, the good guys scored 37 points in the first quarter.
Starting the second quarter was a young and fun group of P.J. Dozier, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Michael Porter Jr., and Jarrred Vanderbilt. They had some initial success getting out and running after Pelicans misses. Unfortunately, the misses didn’t last, and the offense started committing egregious turnovers to give up fast breaks. E’Twaun Moore started to get hot, and that’s the one shooter Denver can’t leave outside of JJ Redick. Still, it was encouraging to see Porter rack up some points in a variety of ways.
As the starters returned, it was Torrey Craig who provided the initial burst with some strong offensive rebounding. Denver’s offense went into a little rut, but some timely three-pointers and enough transition offense kept them ahead of the Pels. Redick started getting hot late in the second quarter, but it wasn’t enough to grab the lead back. The Nuggets led 63-56 at half.
To begin the third quarter, the Nuggets started off very cold offensively. Shots weren’t dropping for anyone not named Jokic, while Zion started getting it going on anyone guarding him. The foul calling became so one-sided at one point that Michael Malone asked the referees to call it both ways. He earned two quick technical fouls and was tossed for his apparent foul mouth. That seemed to fire up the Nuggets a bit, who started to get more defensive, run, and make some important shots. Joker continued to show his dominance, while Denver’s defense locked in to close the third quarter with a 94-82 lead.
Starting the fourth quarter, Denver really struggled to score with Jrue Holiday and Zion Williamson on the floor. They countered with strong defense of their own and prevented Zion from getting going while playing center. Jokic was everywhere defensively during this stretch, and the perimeter players around him were flying around and orbiting Jokic defensively. It made up for some really dismal shooting.
When the Nuggets needed him most, Torrey Craig delivered. He shadowed JJ Redick defensively down the stretch and hit a key three-pointer off a drive by Barton. After a strong defensive possession, he also hit Monte Morris in transition for a three. New Orleans came roaring back with some late threes and an And-1 by Josh Hart, but Denver had just enough to stay ahead. Free throws by Jokic and Grant with enough defense down the stretch kept Denver ahead in this one.
Three Things we said to Watch:
Nikola Jokic vs Derrick Favors in the post was a fun battle, and Jokic won it in the first half, helping Denver get out to a lead at the midpoint of the game. Late in this one, Favors won the battle, with Jokic finishing 9-of-20 from the field. Still Jokic hit all eight of his free throws and got to the rim plenty, even blowing by Zion on what eventually became a missed dunk. Still, a superstar caliber performance from Denver’s superstar.
Torrey Craig and Jerami Grant vs Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson was a great matchup, and all four brought something important to the table. Craig and Grant played very strong defense and hit some timely shots as a collective, while Grant bothered Ingram substantially late in the game. Zion was wonderful in his limited minutes and managed 15 points on nine shots, but it wasn’t enough in this one.
Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr. returned tonight, and both put in key minutes throughout the game. Harris finished with 6 points on 3-of-12 shooting, missing all of his threes, while Porter had 15 points and 10 rebounds on 15 shots of his own. Each guy will be key to Denver’s stretch run, so it was nice to see them back out there. Denver will need more efficient shooting and scoring going forward though.
The Nuggets will face the Houston Rockets on Sunday at Pepsi Center, and it will be a key game in deciding the season series between Denver and Houston.