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Jonas Valanciunas #17 of the New Orleans Pelicans and Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets reach for the ball during the game on Feb. 4, 2022 at Ball Arena.

Behind the Numbers: Nuggets at Pelicans (12/4/2022)

A look at three key numbers related to Sunday’s game in the Smoothie King Center between Denver and New Orleans (2:30 p.m. Central, Bally Sports New Orleans, WRNO 99.5 FM):

2: Place in the Western Conference standings for the winner of Sunday’s game. Denver and New Orleans enter the matinee with identical 14-8 records, both a game behind first-place Phoenix (15-7). While lofty seeding is familiar territory for the Suns – they posted a league-high 64 wins last season and reached the NBA Finals in 2021 as a No. 2 seed – neither the Nuggets nor Pelicans have ever been a conference’s top seed. New Orleans’ premier playoff seed in franchise history occurred in 2008, when the then-Hornets were second-ranked in the West and went 56-26. Since then, the club’s best seeding was No. 6 in 2018, meaning New Orleans has not possessed homecourt advantage in any playoff series in a decade and a half. A win Sunday would give the Pelicans their best record through 23 games since the first two campaigns in team history (2002-03, 2003-04), when New Orleans started 16-7 both seasons (under two different head coaches, Paul Silas and Tim Floyd, respectively). Surprisingly, the 2007-08 squad that racked up 56 victories started just 14-9 through 23 games, before getting red-hot in late December and January. The Pelicans’ winning percentage this season is .636; the ’07-08 team is the only previous NOLA squad to finish over .600.

13: Steals plus blocks over the past three games by forward Zion Williamson. Thirteen has been a very “lucky” number for the New Orleans defense, which leads the league in efficiency in Week 7 (98.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) as the Pelicans have gone 3-0. How unique is Williamson totaling 13 “stocks” (steals plus blocks) over a three-game span? This is the first time he’s done it as a pro. His six blocks in wins over Oklahoma City, Toronto and San Antonio marks the most rejections Williamson has ever netted in a three-game stretch, while his seven steals are tied for his best three-game tally (he did it twice in 2020-21, once to open the season, then in March/April). The Duke product averaged 0.9 and 1.0 steal per 36 minutes in his first two NBA seasons, but has upped that to 1.5 early in 2022-23. Fun fact: since Nov. 23, Williamson was tied with Jose Alvarado for fourth among all NBA players with 10 total steals (entering Saturday evening).

636:New Orleans points this season scored by second-year players, according to NBA.com. That’s the third-most from “sophomores” among the league’s 30 teams, trailing only Houston (962, led by 2021’s No. 2 pick, Jalen Green) and Oklahoma City (806, No. 6 pick Josh Giddey). With forward Trey Murphy breaking out in a big way (265 points, average of 13.3 ppg) and additional scoring punch from Alvarado (191) and Herb Jones (180), the Pelicans possess the only large group of second-year pros contributing to a plus-.500 team. There’s an old NBA axiom that young teams don’t win – which has again mostly held true this season, except in the Crescent City. Murphy, Alvarado and Jones also combine to give New Orleans elite second-year production in three-pointers made (second with 94), steals (second with 68), rebounds (fourth with 203) and assists (fourth with 135).

Previous Game Starting Lineups

DENVER (14-8)

Friday loss at Atlanta

Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bruce Brown, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic

Notes: This group is 4-1, going 3-1 over the past four games, as well as beating the Lakers in Colorado on Oct. 26. Denver’s most common starting combination is 6-5, with Michael Porter Jr. replacing Brown at small forward. … Porter (left heel strain) is listed as out for Sunday’s game, while key reserve Jeff Green (right knee contusion) is questionable. … The Nuggets have used seven different starting lineups this season. … Denver will face New Orleans twice in January, then wrap up a four-game season series March 30 at Ball Arena.

NEW ORLEANS (14-8)

Friday win at San Antonio

CJ McCollum, Dyson Daniels, Trey Murphy, Zion Williamson, Jonas Valanciunas

Notes: This group is 1-0. The rookie Daniels made his first NBA start at AT&T Center. It was the seventh different starting lineup used by the Pelicans this season. … The most common New Orleans first unit this season is 6-4 and features Herb Jones and Brandon Ingram at the wing positions, instead of Daniels and Murphy. Jones (left ankle sprain) and Ingram (left great toe contusion) are listed as out for Sunday’s game. … New Orleans’ current three-game winning streak marks its second 3-0 stretch since Nov. 12 (the Pelicans are 8-2 overall after a 6-6 start).

FanDuel Keys to the Game

(It’s Star Wars Sunday in the Smoothie King Center)

YOU WERE THE CHOSEN 1
What a Week 7 it’s been for a trio of New Orleans first-round picks. Williamson has been an all-galaxy forward, producing his best series of all-around performances since being taken No. 1 overall in 2019, while Murphy has delivered big-time while moving into a starting role, averaging 21.0 points and 4.3 made threes. Daniels made his first NBA start Friday and has cemented a spot in Willie Green’s rotation after being behind veterans on the depth chart.

USE THE FORCE
You may not even need a light saber if you have quick ball movement and accurate foul shooting. The Pelicans have displayed both while going 8-2 over the past 10 games, topping the 30-assist mark four times and suddenly looking like Jedi masters at the charity stripe. New Orleans has shot at least 85 percent on free throws in each of the past four games, with a season-best 96 percent (25 of 26) on Friday.

DENY THE DARK SIDE
From a New Orleans perspective, Sunday’s “Darth Vader” is two-time reigning league MVP Jokic, whose imaginative passing ability has reached a level some may consider unnatural. It’s important for the New Orleans defense to be aware of Denver cutters such as Gordon and Brown, who are constantly looking for one of Jokic’s dimes.