It sure is tough to win basketball games when you miss 85.7 percent of your total three-pointers.
That’s what happened on Thursday night when the Denver Nuggets lost 107-88 to the New Orleans Pelicans in the first half of a back-to-back, sending the Western Conference’s #1 seed to just their first loss in five games. The Nuggets were without the two-time MVP, Nikola Jokić, who was listed as out just before game time due to calf tightness. Without their star and hub of the offense, the Nuggets scored just 88 points in regulation, their second-lowest scoring performance of the season and just the third time that the Nuggets failed to break 90 points in a game.
As mentioned, three-point shooting, or lack thereof, was the name of the game. Denver went a woeful 4-of-28 from behind the arc, just 14.3 percent, the Nuggets’ worst three-point performance of the season. Jamal Murray was responsible for all four of Denver’s three-point makes, meaning that the rest of the team went a combined 0-of-24. New Orleans, meanwhile, was successful on 47.8 percent of their three-pointers.
“I felt, for the most part, without having looked at the film, I felt we missed a lot of wide-open looks. Quality looks that you try to generate,” said head coach Michael Malone after the game. “But I think the simple answer is when you're playing with the MVP, things are a lot easier.”
Oddly enough, the Nuggets bested the Pelicans inside the three-point arc, winning the two-point battle, 52-44, on 12.3 percent better accuracy. Really, it was the discrepancy in three-point shooting and a poor performance from the free-throw line that doomed Denver on their home floor. The Nuggets shot just 62.5 percent from the charity stripe compared to the Pelicans’ 81.8 percent. That effectively decided the game.
Bruce Brown gave the Nuggets a nice spark off the bench with 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals.
“When Bruce is getting downhill, you know, making plays at the rim, obviously that opens up his three-point shot a little more. Him just staying aggressive is really big. For the second unit, he does a really good job on defense night in and night out,” said Christian Braun after the game. “When he's making those energy plays, he's getting downhill finishing layups, it makes it so much easier on everybody else in that second unit.”
Brandon Ingram was unstoppable for New Orleans with 31 points, 10 assists, and 11 rebounds, his second triple-double of the season. CJ McCollum also did a perfunctory job as his co-star with 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting.
After Murray got the Nuggets on the board with three made free throws, the Pelicans responded with an 11-0 run behind 8 early points from Ingram. Denver was eventually able to chip away at the Pelicans’ double-digit lead with a 6-0 run to close out the quarter as Denver's bench unit—Jeff Green, Brown, and Braun—gave Michael Malone’s group some major energy. Denver finished the quarter just behind, 21-17.
Brown gave the Nuggets a boost in the second quarter, filling it up with 9 points on 4-of-6 from the field on multiple drives and even a floater. Still, New Orleans built back a double-digit lead behind two threes from Trey Murphy III, one from Josh Richardson, and two from Herb Jones, up 42-32 with just under 4:30 remaining in the quarter. Though Jamal Murray had it going, hitting his third three-pointer at the 2:36 mark, the Nuggets’ struggles from deep continued. Denver entered halftime down 50-40.
The Pelicans' torrid shooting did not slow down in the third quarter. It was CJ McCollum’s time to shine on a quartet of threes, giving New Orleans the 70-53 lead at the 5:37 mark in the quarter. Ingram continued to fill it up with 11 points in the third and reached the double-double mark in the middle of the quarter. Denver managed things out on an 11-4 run to bring the score to 82-70 in favor of New Orleans.
Brown did his best to keep his squad in the game, putting up his 16th and 18th points of the game on a pair of tough layups through contact to start the fourth quarter. Denver was finally able to break down the door on a pair of huge dunks from Braun to whittle New Orleans’ lead down to single digits for the first time since the second quarter. The Pelicans quickly countered when Murphy III hit his third three of the game, and New Orleans never looked back on that double-digit advantage.
Nikola Jokić was sorely missed
Nuggets’ star center, Nikola Jokić, was a late scratch just before tip-off due to calf tightness. He was previously listed as questionable with the injury on Wednesday evening. Jokić was available in the Nuggets’ 21 previous games and has played in all but 9 of Denver’s 76 total games.
Malone mentioned that Jokić was limited at Nuggets practice on Wednesday. Then on Thursday, he was not a participant in any of the Nuggets’ pre-game shootarounds.
“I think it's just been something kind of brewing a little bit. He was able to get through the Philadelphia game. In practice yesterday, didn't do a whole lot. Obviously being ultra-cautious with where we are at with the season,” said Malone. “If there's any doubt, we're going to err on the side of caution. There’s seven games remaining in the regular season.”
Jokić is coming off a dominant 25-point, 17-rebound, 12-assist, and 2-block performance against the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday. The hope is that he’ll return to the floor shortly, perhaps as soon as Friday when the Nuggets head to Phoenix to play the fourth-seeded Suns. But as Malone mentioned, Denver is going to play it cautiously when handling their star’s injury, especially given Denver’s comfortable first-place lead in the Western Conference.
Jamal Murray was fouled on the first possession of the game while taking a three-pointer. He then became the Nuggets’ 10th all-time leading scorer after sinking his first of three free-throws, passing Nene with 6,868 career points. Next up for Murray is Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, who scored 7,029 points as a Nugget.
After completing his 1,103rd game, Jeff Green tied Michael Finley for 82nd place in all-time games played. Next up for Green is Tom Chambers, Robert Horry, and Jack Sikma, all of whom played in 1,107 games in their careers.
Jamal Murray finished as the only Nugget to hit a three-pointer in the game against New Orleans. The last time only one Nuggets player made a three-pointer was on December 22, 2014, in Charlotte (Ty Lawson).
The Nuggets head to Phoenix on Friday to face the Suns at 8:30 p.m. MT.