The Denver Nuggets didn’t bring their A-game tonight but still toughed out a 116-111 victory against the Anthony-Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans. Nikola Jokic took just 8 shots but ended up one rebound short of a triple double, while Gary Harris put up 23 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and had two crucial late-game steals. Jamal Murray added another 23 points of his own but struggled with involving Jokic in the offensive flow. The Pelicans got 24 points from Julius Randle and a 17 / 10 game from Nikola Mirotic, while Jrue Holiday’s first half foul trouble might have been the only thing that stopped him from notching a triple-double. With Anthony Davis out there this game may have gone a whole other way, so the Nuggets will take the victory and the constructive film criticism that will come with it.

Nikola Mirotic hit a jumper and Jamal Murray drove the hoop to snag the first buckets for both teams. Jokic ran a nice screen game for a Murray 3, then another on a Gary Harris runner for an early 7-2 Nuggets lead. The Nuggets went 1-for-5 on early threes, though, and Millsap had no early tough again as the Pelicans tied it up at 7 with 5 minutes gone. The Pelicans were up 13-9 when Malone called a timeout, had a disagreement with Murray despite Jamal’s effort, and Jokic launched back-to-back three pointers immediately after. 

The Nuggets missed more shots right at the rim while the Pelicans had scored 14 of their first 21 points in the paint to go up 21-13 with Jrue Holiday scoring 9 early points. Denver was out of rhythm the whole quarter but a three from Lyles pulled it to within four at 24-20.

Murray hit a three to open the period, and Monte Morris tied the game at 26. And ugly turnover from Mason Plumlee turned in a Julius Randle dunk as Randle helped New Orleans keep pace off the bench, but a Trey Lyles jump hook and a Plumlee tip-in gave Denver the 34-32 lead before the starters filtered back in. 

Jokic had a beautiful pass to Harris for a reverse lay-in, and Jokic hit another three and some free throws to stretch the lead to 7 at 43-36. Malik Beasley hit a three, but Randle hit back with a paint bucket of his own. And then this alley oop dropped from Jokic to Harris.

The Pels fired up a three too, trying to stay close the rest of the half. Denver’s starters played angry the last 3 minutes, though, with drives by Harris and Murray, a three from Millsap and a two-handed tip-in from Jokic. Jamal Murray drove the hoop, flexed, and finished a three-point play to close the half with Denver up 58-45.

The Pelicans got a few bounces to start the second half and close to within 10. Torrey Craig was pulled early for an ill-advised three and was replaced by Malik Beasley, while Paul Millsap got another three to drop off a Jokic assist. Millsap got a great block, slammed home a dunk and then a Beasley breakaway dunk on a great feed from Murray put Denver back up 17 at 67-50.

Chieck Diallo came in with a pair of finishes and Denver got away from feeding Jokic in the paint again to let New Orleans close it back to 11, but Murray fired back and Harris drove the bucket for free throws. Harris hit a three to make it 74-56, but some disinterested offense from Denver including a pair of lackadaisical shots from Jokic let New Orleans close it to 11 again. The pick and roll really hurt Denver in the back half of the quarter as New Orleans went o on a 9-0 run. The teams went back and forth to end the quarter as both benches fought hard, but Denver couldn’t solve that roll issue and led just by 8 at the end of the quarter, 84-76. 

The Nuggets fought for early rebounds in the fourth, but the Pelicans hit the outside shots to close within 4 at 88-84. Denver played too much around the perimeter but Harris hit a nice shot at the buzzer. E’Twaun Moore helped power New Orleans on offense while New Orleans forced Denver to go side to side, but Harris drove the hoop hard in transition to get Denver’s lead back to 9 as the rest of the starters came back (sans Craig). 

New Orleans immediately closed back to two as Jokic mostly played the role of screener. The Nuggets abandoned the pick and role and instead relied on guard fadeaways and ill-advised drives. Jokic eventually drove the hoop himself and then made a beautiful pass to Beasley to get a bit of breathing room at 99-94.

A pair of steals from Gary Harris keyed a Beasley bucket and a Millsap dunk to get to 103-94, but New Orleans wouldn’t go away. Mirotic kept hitting threes to keep it close at 105-100 with under two minutes to go. Gary Harris snagged an absolutely crucial steal then finished an in-bounds play at the hoop, and the Nuggets won the game down the stretch at the line. In a game without their best energy and execution it was good for the Nuggets to get the win, but the way the Pelicans defended them is a concern going forward despite the victory.

Final Thoughts

These ugly starts where it looks like the Nuggets have never played together are weird. The Nuggets know who they are. They should feed Jokic in the high post and elbow area and work around him on cuts and screens as they play for shots at the basket or open threes. In this game, Jokic didn’t shoot early in the paint against a team that could deploy no one to slow him, and Denver went with a weird around-the-horn passing thing on the perimeter initiated by guards when they weren’t posting up the wrong players. Jokic found open guys – the shots were just missed – but when he’s not shooting it tends to cause issues for Denver, especially when he never decides to pull the trigger and stays passive the whole game.

The bench came in and stabilized the energy and effort (which is still a weird thing to say about the Nuggets) and then Denver’s starters found their groove in the second quarter, The whole game was a disjointed endeavor though. Jokic’s 8 shots are not enough. Denver clearly not having a plan to actually get him the ball or work a half-court non-isolation offense down the stretch is a problem. These are the sorts of things they should have down to a science by now, especially with guards that have played with him since he got to the league (or they did). The Nuggets need to solve this puzzle now before it starts costing them games.

Craig and Millsap are getting a green-light from deep – and that’s not necessarily good. Torrey Craig’s inability to hit from deep is creating issues for Denver’s offense as teams are already sagging off of him in order to clog passing lanes and take away back-door cuts. Paul Millsap finally made more than one three pointer in a game, but he also struggled a bit with turnovers and finishes. Malik Beasley really showed up tonight with energy on both ends as well as some crucial shot-making.

After the game coach Michael Malone said he would not change his starting rotation, but it would not surprise me if Beasley plays a lot next to the starters shortly in order to keep the floor spacing adequate for Denver and allow their free-flowing offense to reappear. In the meantime, enjoy these quick hands from Gary Harris and the 5-1 start from a Nuggets team that is getting wins without playing its best basketball.

This content is no longer available.