Preview: Denver Nuggets aim to bounce back vs. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

The Nuggets will be looking to overcome their recent injury struggles when they travel to New Orleans to face the Pelicans.

Denver’s injury issues reared their head on Wednesday against the Rockets when Michael Malone was limited to dressing just nine players with five key members of the rotation out. The absences of Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, Michael Porter Jr. and Mason Plumlee created a sizeable gap in personnel for the Nuggets and it showed in their 121-105 defeat in Houston. 

Malone has said Harris is edging closer to a return from a right adductor sprain and Porter Jr.’s back injury isn’t serious. Both are listed as questionable for Friday's game. If either can dress, it would be a significant boost to a Nuggets team that is trying to avoid being swept by New Orleans the for the first time since the 2002-03 season.

After several months of waiting, Pelicans fans finally got their chance to see Zion Williamson in a lively debut Wednesday. The No. 1 pick of the 2019 draft got off to a slow start but finished with a dominant 17-point fourth quarter. Although New Orleans would lose to the San Antonio Spurs, Williamson’s emergence late in the contest provided what could be a glimpse of the franchise’s future. With the highly-touted rookie now in the fold, it only adds to what was already a tricky matchup for Denver.

The Nuggets have struggled in controlling the pace against the Pelicans in the first two games of the season series. Denver lost both contests by an average margin of 13.5 points and New Orleans is averaging 24.5 fastbreak points against it. That will need to improve Friday.

Projected starters: Monte Morris, Will Barton III, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant and Nikola Jokić

TUNE IN: 6 p.m. MT, TV: ALTITUDE, RADIO: KKSE 92.5FM/950AM

Here are the storylines to watch for: 

Limiting fast breaks

As mentioned above, the Nuggets have struggled in slowing the Pelicans down. Some of it is down to how New Orleans plays, with the team sitting fifth in fast break points (16.4) and pace (103.29). Yet, the Nuggets have also given the Pelicans some easy opportunities to get on break due to conceding costly turnovers.

Denver is giving up 15.5 points per game on turnovers to New Orleans, which is higher than their season average of 14.5. Although the difference might appear to be negligible, it provides the Pelicans with easy scoring chances. Considering that the Pelicans are 18th in offensive rating at 109.5, the difference has been deleterious for the Nuggets in the season series.

Own the paint

If there’s one area where the Nuggets have excelled in this matchup, it’s been scoring in the paint. Against the Pelicans, the Nuggets are averaging 53 points in the paint, which is slightly higher than their season average of 50 (fifth in the NBA). The Pelicans are averaging 40 points in the paint against the Nuggets, which is over six points below their normal output of 46.7.

Jerami Grant has stood out against the Pelicans this season, averaging 15.5 points on 60 percent shooting. If he and Nikola Jokić can attack the rim early and often, it could help the Nuggets’ chances of pulling out a win. 

Improve from downtown

Denver is 1-2 in its last three games and the team’s dip in three-point shooting has played a role. In the Nuggets’ 115-107 loss to the Pacers, the team shot just 3-of-23 from behind the arc on the night – the fewest made threes at home since 2014.

In the Nuggets’ 30 wins on the season, the team converts threes at a 38 percent rate. In their 14 losses, that shooting percentage drops by a whopping 10 percent (28.0). With the Pelicans being a more than capable three-point shooting team, hitting on 37 percent of their attempts (sixth in the NBA), the Nuggets will need to step up their long-range shooting to keep up. If not, Malone and his team could be in line for another difficult matchup.

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