Behind 26 points from Jahlil Okafor, a return to the floor by Jrue Holiday, who contributed 19 points, and Frank Jackson erupting for 21 points off the bench, the New Orleans Pelicans picked up its first win of the 2019-20 season, beating the Denver Nuggets in convincing fashion, 122-107.
Holiday missed Monday night’s lopsided loss to the Warriors with a knee injury, but he returned to the court for New Orleans on Thursday evening and made an immediate impact. Holiday had, as his general manager David Griffin said over the summer, “permission to dominate” especially in the game’s first few minutes. When the first timeout was called, Holiday had already scored a fast eight points, including hitting two threes, grabbed three rebounds and had an assist to the Pelicans’ leading scorer Okafor, who was starting in place of the injured Derrick Favors.
Speaking of starting lineups, Alvin Gentry unveiled his fourth different opening-tip group of the season. Lonzo Ball and Holiday were once again Gentry’s starting back court; Brandon Ingram was New Orleans’ starting small forward; and Nicolo Melli got his first career start at power forward while Okafor started at center.
The effect proved beneficial as New Orleans got off to a strong start on the glass and wound up out-rebounding Denver 37-35. After giving up 19 offensive rebounds to the Warriors, the Pelicans limited the Nuggets to just five on Thursday. The new starting lineup also helped New Orleans win the opening quarter; as a matter of fact, the Pelicans would win every quarter.
Denver may have come into Thursday’s game with the advantage at center on paper, but in reality Jahlil Okafor outplayed Nikola Jokic. Okafor scored 26 points and made it to the free throw line a career-best 13 times; the MVP-candidate had 13 points, six assists and six rebounds. Jokic used his overwhelming size to get to the basket early, while Okafor countered with a heavy dose of impressive footwork throughout.
To beat a team as good as Denver, you need a complete team effort and the Pelicans’ bench, namely Frank Jackson, delivered in epic fashion. Jackson closed the first quarter with 10 points in four minutes on a perfect 4-4 shooting including a pair of threes. Jackson would finish the night with a season-best 21 points and accounted for about 60 percent of New Orleans 36 bench points.
Two areas that led to the Pelicans getting its first win of the season was the rapid pace they played at and the defense limiting threes. New Orleans came into Thursday ranked third in pace; Denver ranked 30th. New Orleans used that mismatch to its advantage and outscored Denver by 17 fast break points, 37 to 20. The Nuggets may have gotten a lot of quality attempts inside — Denver outscored New Orleans 60 to 48 in points in the paint, but the Pelicans compensated by turning the pace up to 11 and out-running the Nuggets.
The Pelicans also did a good job in taking away the three-point shot from the Nuggets. New Orleans is in the bottom third in the league in allowed threes, giving up around 17 makes a game. Thursday night the Pelicans only allowed Denver to hit on seven of 29 attempts. Denver’s starting five combined to shoot 2-13 from beyond the arc.
And just like that, New Orleans is in the win column for the first time all season. Aside from two short instances in the first quarter, the Pelicans led the entire way. Holiday finished with easily his best game of the season, Brandon Ingram continued to shine with 25 points, and perhaps most impressively, got to the free throw line 11 times — more than double than any game this season. Lonzo Ball had nine points and eight assists. He was as cool as a cucumber but attacked decisively throughout. Lastly, Melli did a little bit of everything in his first career start: seven points, four rebounds and two assists.
The Pelicans will spend Friday traveling to Oklahoma City as the team prepares to take on the Thunder on Saturday afternoon. Time for the season’s first winning steak!