Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets arrived in New Orleans in the midst of a stretch where they had won 13 of their last 17 contests, buoying a 34-15 record that was as good as any 50-game start the franchise has ever had.
Despite this, the abundantly short-handed Pelicans, playing on the second night of a back-to-back, kept the game within reach for its entirety before finally falling by a score of 105-99, dropping their record to 23-29.
Jokic was a catalyst from the opening tip, producing at a level that used to be shocking, but has now become commonplace for the legitimate MVP candidate. He finished with 20 points on a cool 9-16 from the field, snagged 13 rebounds and tallied 10 assists, all while turning over the ball just twice.
Plays like this are not made by accident.
Sickening pass by Jokic pic.twitter.com/uRNX5a6jvN— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) January 31, 2019
To the detriment of his opponents, the eye test continued to support the numbers come crunch time.
The Pelicans trailed 100-93 late with just over two minutes remaining in regulation. When Ian Clark passed up an open corner three only to miss a mid-range floater, it looked as if the book had finally closed on the upset bid.
However, Holiday came up with the ball and fed Clark once more, who this time rose from the corner to knock down the triple. Seconds after a clutch stop on the defensive end, Holiday drilled a three-pointer of his own to bring New Orleans back within one.
Unfortunately, that would be the last time the Pelicans put the ball in the basket. Jokic would beat Jahlil Okafor with two consecutive reverse layups right along the baseline, and the Pelicans could not retaliate on the other end.
Jokic proved to be a worthy match on both ends for Okafor all night long. The Pelicans’ starting center, whose recent hot streak had shown no signs of slowing down, shot a good-not-great 7-15 from the field but did not get to the free throw line and finished with only 14 points.
Between the physicality of Jokic and foul-trouble, he was just not able to find his rhythm. Given how well he has been playing as of late, and the volume of minutes he has been asked to all of a sudden play (195 of his 436 minutes this season have come in the last six games), he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
And hey, he still had his moments!
Speaking of feel-good stories, tonight’s belonged to Kenrich Williams, who for the second straight night showed up on the box score in a big way. His career-high 21 points included five made threes on nine attempts after having made only one triple all season at the opening tip. The rookie out of TCU was fresh off of a 16-rebound showing in last night’s game against the Rockets, so we can only hope that the career-highs and confidence continue to climb to new heights moving forward.
The Pelicans’ worst stretches of the evening came in the first few minutes of each half. Denver scored seven points in the first minute of the contest before the Pelicans had managed a single one. Fortunately, the defense stabilized and the offense found a rhythm, and an 18-7 run essentially hit the reset button on the game.
The third quarter proved to be a bit more troublesome. A 56-53 lead at halftime quickly became a 63-56 deficit as the offense once again went frigid. It was a Solomon Hill score, his only of the game, with 7:59 remaining that finally got the Pelicans on the board. Denver’s 33 points in the frame, their most in any quarter on the night, looked even bigger next to the Pelicans’ game-low 19.
The script flipped on the defensive end for the Pelicans in the fourth quarter, with the reserves slowing down a Jokic-less Nuggets bench unit for the first few minutes, but even their 19 points in those final 12 minutes were enough to get the job done.
Joel Meyers will always be the first to say that points off of turnovers can be the kryptonite of any team, and tonight the Pelicans were no exception. Fifteen turnovers turned into 26 points, and 1.73 points per possession at that rate will make life hard on even the best teams in the league.
Holiday finished with another well-rounded stat line: 17 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists. After six blocks last night, he did not manage to get one tonight.
A once-again aggressive Darius Miller was the fourth Pelican in double figures, finishing with 14 points and four made threes. He also finished with 6 rebounds and 5 assists, which for a player who has struggled to consistently contribute in multiple facets of the game, is a sight for sore eyes.
When a team plays this well under such disadvantageous circumstances, winning seems like the only fair outcome. Unfortunately, the NBA is not always fair. But these Pelicans will not hang their heads.
Alvin Gentry was quick to silence critics that feel New Orleans can’t build a successful basketball culture:
After asked about owner Gayle Benson visiting the team to encourage them pregame, a very passionate Alvin Gentry ranted about the idea the Pelicans are “second class citizens” in New Orleans: pic.twitter.com/30lMzfVBkL— Royce Young (@royceyoung) January 31, 2019
Based on what we have seen from them in the past two games, they are not going to roll over to anybody, especially not their division-rival San Antonio Spurs, who they will visit on Saturday night at 7:30 P.M.
Hopefully they don’t, because when a team plays this hard, it’s tough not to notice.
Let’s geaux, Pels!