"It was a tale of two halves."
That was what head coach Michael Malone had to say after the Denver Nuggets' 115-110 loss on Friday night to the New Orleans Pelicans. This was Denver's first loss in the NBA's brand-new In-Season Tournament. They're now 2-1 in the Group Stage and tied with the Pelicans in the Group B standings.
The Nuggets were down by as many as 20 points but battled back to get the deficit down to just 1 point, though they fell short. Denver is now 9-3 on the season, tied for the best record in the Western Conference standings. They're 2-3 on the road.
Poor shooting was a major catalyst for the loss. The Nuggets went just 10-of-40 from behind the arc and hoisted many difficult attempts. The Pelicans, meanwhile, made a ridiculous 53.3 percent of their threes.
Nikola Jokić was Denver's standout with 26 points, 16 rebounds, and 18 assists. His 18 assists were the most any player has tossed out in an NBA game this season. This tied Jokić's career-high for most assists in a game. Tuesday was Jokić's fifth triple-double of the year, the most by any NBA player.
Christian Braun was also exceptional off the bench. He recorded a career-high 25 points on 11-of-19 shooting and made a trio of threes.
"I thought he was terrific in his 29 minutes of action," said Malone. "That's the (Braun) that we need every night. He's just got to play with reckless abandon, play hard, play tough and be aggressive."
The Nuggets started slow. New Orleans quickly built a 12-6 lead, forcing a timeout from Malone. That lead grew 27-19, which yielded another Denver timeout. Braun checked in and immediately made an impact with two layups and a three-pointer, and Denver entered the second quarter down 36-28.
Denver's defense was sloppy to start the second quarter and gave New Orleans two And-1 opportunities, the second of which was when rookie Julian Strawther fouled sharpshooter Matt Ryan for a four-point play. Jokić decided it was takeover time and took it right at Jonas Valančiūnas for 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the second quarter. However, just before the break, Michael Porter Jr. fouled Brandon Ingram on a made shot for New Orleans' third And-1 play. This gave the Pelicans a 69-53 lead heading into the second half.
New Orleans got the lead up to as many as 20 points in the third. Jokić recorded his triple-double at about the 5-minute mark in the period. Then, a sudden Nuggets' hot streak from deep made it a 9-point game. Naji Marshall hit three three-pointers to give New Orleans a 95-86 lead through three quarters.
Braun continued to play with excellent poise and quickly accumulated 8 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter to make it a 1-point game. Some late shotmaking in the final three minutes from New Orleans' stars, Ingram and Zion Williamson, grew their lead back to 9 points. Things got interesting when Jokić hit a layup and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope hit a three, but the Nuggets ran out of time and were forced to foul Herb Jones, who hit both free-throws.