Matt Brooks
Writer & Digital Content Specialist

The Western Conference has every bit the feel of a photo finish as the regular season winds down. Each remaining game on the schedule matters a wee bit extra for teams vying for spots in the standings. 

That’s certainly the case on Thursday when the Denver Nuggets (51-24) and the New Orleans Pelicans (38-38) face off in a pivotal matchup that could decide seeding in the wild, wild West.  

Denver is coming off a narrow 116-111 victory over the Joel Embiid and James Harden-less Philadelphia 76ers in which Nikola Jokić filled the stat sheet to the brim with 25 points, 17 rebounds, 12 assists, and 2 blocks. Though it wasn’t the Mile Hile squad’s prettiest performance, nearly coughing up a 22-point lead in the fourth quarter, they got the job done. Michael Malone’s group can extend their streak to five consecutive victories on Thursday and build upon its 3.5-game lead over the Memphis Grizzlies as the best team in the Western Conference. 

New Orleans, meanwhile, is in a different position. The bottom of the Western Conference remains up in the air, as the 6-through-12 seeds are separated by just 3.5 games. The Pelicans currently sit at spot #9 in the West following Tuesday’s 120-109 loss to Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors after blowing a 20-point lead and allowing 74 second-half points. 

The loss interrupted what has largely been a successful stretch for the Big Easy hoopers. The Pels were previously on a 5-game winning streak versus an admittedly soft schedule, rattling off victories against multiple teams headed for the draft lottery—the Portland Trail Blazers, Charlotte Hornets, San Antonio Spurs, and Houston Rockets—plus an encouraging win against the fifth-seeded LA Clippers. Still, you play whoever is in front of you, and New Orleans has found a nice groove to bounce back from a frigid 3-13 month of January. 

In short, fans are in for a good one at Ball Arena.  


Vlatko Cancar — Questionable (Left Ankle Sprain) 
Collin Gillespie — Out (Right Leg Fracture) 
Nikola Jokić — Questionable (Right Calf Tightness) 
Peyton Watson — Questionable (Non-Covid Illness) 
Jack White — Out (Health and Safety Protocols) 
New Orleans: 
Jose Alvarado — Out (Right Tibial Stress Reaction) 
E.J. Liddell — Out (ACL Injury Recovery) 
Zion Williamson — Out (Right Hamstring Strain) 

Cool the Pels’ long-range shooting 

It is no coincidence that, in a league that grows increasingly defined by the three-pointer, the Pelicans’ 5-1 stretch has coincided with torrid marksmanship from distance. New Orleans has shot 40 percent or better from deep in four of its last six games, including a blistering 61.8 percent on March 25 against the Clippers. On the season, the Pels rank closer to the middle of the pack at twelfth place in three-point shooting (37 percent). They also don’t take a ton of threes, ranking 28th in the NBA in three-point frequency. 

Obviously, Pelicans’ star Brandon Ingram will garner much of Denver’s defensive attention. Ingram has put up a preposterous 29.1 points on 51.6 percent shooting and 47.4 percent from deep in New Orleans’ last 6 contests. But accounting for sophomore Trey Murphy III will also be paramount for the Nuggets. Murphy III has been on a heater since being inserted into New Orleans’ starting lineup on March 3, rattling home a team-best 47.8 percent of his 113 total threes. 

To limit these two snipers (plus crafty scorer CJ McCollum), the Nuggets will need to concede three-point looks from other players on the Pelicans’ roster. Herb Jones (30.3 percent from three-point range) comes to mind when glancing at viable options in New Orleans’ starting lineup. Plus, the Nuggets can help fairly liberally when the Pelicans’ bench unit—Larry Nance Jr. (33.3 percent from deep), Naji Marshall (30.5 percent), and Dyson Daniels (30 percent)—filters in. Aggressive pick-and-roll traps, double-teams in the post, and early help rotations are all on the table for Denver when any of Jones, Marshall, Daniels, and Nance Jr. are in the game. 

Control possessions and pick spots on offense wisely 

Scoring on New Orleans’ sixth-ranked defense won’t be easy. Though the Pels haven’t had the luckiest season, most notably losing stars Ingram and Zion Williamson for extended periods of time due to injury, their defensive integrity has kept them afloat and in the playoff hunt. 

The key to cracking this rock-solid Pelicans’ defensive core will be caretaking the basketball with near perfection. New Orleans ranks second in the league in steals per game and forces the second-most deflections. This could be problematic for Denver, who can be careless with the basketball and ranks 19th overall in turnovers per game.  

Another possible avenue for attack against New Orleans is at the rim. The Pelicans are strong at curtailing close-range shots thanks to strong perimeter defenders like Marshall, Jones, and Daniels, and the Pels allow the ninth-fewest shots at the basket. However, when opponents do get to the rim, they score with relative ease; Pelican enemies are shooting 72 percent at the basket, a mark that ranks dead last in the NBA. This can largely be attributed to the limitations of their starting center, Jonas Valančiūnas, who is allowing opponents to shoot 67.5 percent at the rim, one of the three-worst marks in the NBA among players that contest at least 5 at-rim shots per game, according to Second Spectrum. Essentially, the Nuggets must attack the rim selectively and decisively.  

All stats per Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless stated otherwise. 

TUNE-IN: 8 p.m. MT, TNT and 92.5FM