DENVER — The New Orleans Pelicans ended the host Denver Nuggets’ seven-game winning streak on Christmas day with a 112-100 victory without No. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson.
This is the same Pelicans team that lost 13 straight games this season and previously beat the Nuggets 122-107 in New Orleans on Halloween.
It was a back-and-forth struggle during the first half, but thanks to Brandon Ingram’s 31 points — including 7-of-9 threes — the Nuggets never led in the second half.
“He’s a talented player. I think he’s playing the best basketball in his life right now. He shot the ball really well today and he’s a tough guy to guard,” Nuggets center Nikola Jokic said after the loss.
This game highlighted every reason why the Nuggets are not a championship team just yet. In the matchups where Denver has struggled, it has been dominated in transition and in the paint. There was also no answer for Ingram and New Orleans’ outside shooting. The Pelicans, seventh in the league in 3-point percentage, shot 41.9 percent from three. The Nuggets’ guards rotating out of help-side defense or after second-chance shots off offensive boards could not close on shooters fast enough.
Point guard Jamal Murray struggled from the field, going 2-of-10 and finishing with eight points, a stark contrast to the 23 points he averaged the previous four games.
The Nuggets gave up 27 points off turnovers and 20 second-chance points in the second half. “I think with rebounding, it really comes down with who wants the ball. That’s it,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone said. “We got bullied on the boards, they dominated us with their physicality. We had a great seven-game winning streak, but tonight was a different team.”
A different team, yes. The Nuggets are so inconsistent that it’s difficult to decipher which version will show up each night.
There are doubts that this Nuggets team can make its first Western Conference finals appearance in more than 10 years. Jokic, an All-Star and the team’s best player, struggled early in the season despite averaging a double-double. And listed at 284 pounds, he’s the heaviest player to play an NBA game this season.
Jokic recognizes the noise in the media surrounding his size and productivity but pays little attention to it. “We don't think about what anybody else with the media or other teams think about us,” Jokic said. “We just think about ourselves.”
Other Nuggets players have stepped up recently. Malik Beasley had a season-high 16 points in a 128-104 road win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday. Jerami Grant had the game-winning play Monday, blocking Devin Booker’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer to secure a 113-111 win in Phoenix. And Gary Harris had the first five points Wednesday and 10 points at half to get things going in the Nuggets’ eventual loss.
But the question remains. Will these Nuggets finally make a deep run in the playoffs?
“What are we, a top-two team in the West right now? I mean, we just won seven in a row and lost one game,” Harris told Yahoo Sports after the game. “We all have to get better. All of us as a group. I don’t think we’re worried about what other people are saying. We know what we can do. We’ll be all right.”
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