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NBA Preview: Pelicans new identity comes to a head against the Denver Nuggets on Xmas night!

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New Orleans has completely shifted their identity in the past four games, becoming one of the league’s premier defensive units. Can they keep it going on Xmas night?

New Orleans Pelicans v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Happy Holidays, Pelicans fans!

For Pels’ fans, Christmas came early by virtue of one of the most impressive victories of the season against Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers this past Monday.

The Pelicans have been dynamic on the defensive end with a healthy Derrick Favors in tow. One of the league’s five worst lineups on that end has skyrocketed up to be its very best in a growing sample size.

Oddly enough, the Pelicans have completely transformed their playing style during this brief period. Traditionally the Pelicans have been one of the fastest and most prolific scoring offenses in the NBA under head coach Alvin Gentry.

In the past four games, the Pelicans’ have completely flipped the script. Just as they’ve been the league’s best defensive unit, they’ve been its worst offensive unit over that span.

That’s not all. They’ve gone from the league’s seventh-fastest offense to the 14th slowest!

Let me say that again for those who may have missed it...

The Pelicans are now a mildly-paced offensive stank pit who plays elite-level defensive basketball.

Over the Past Four Games...

Ask me who’s been the Pelicans’ best defensive player over the past four games...Go ahead, ask!

Derrick Favors? Nope! Jrue Holiday? Not close, though he is top-50 in the NBA!

Lonzo? Not quite, though he has been spectacular with a defensive rating of 91.3, good for fourth in the NBA among those averaging 20 or more minutes.

Kenrich Williams? Getting warmer! He’s second on the Pelicans and third in the NBA among players who’ve averaged 20 minutes or more.

The answer?

JAXSON HAYES

With an insane 89.8 rating, Jaxson Hayes has been the second-highest rated defender in the NBA over the past four games.

The future is bright for this young man.

So, in keeping with the Pelicans growing rhythm, they need to slow it down and continue their heady defensive play.

There’s only one problem with this plan.

Denver Nuggets

The league’s slowest team in terms of pace would be obliged to plod up and down the court on Christmas night.

This might be an ill-conceived plan as the Pelicans enjoyed one of their more signifcant victories of the season on Halloween night by pushing the pace all night long. Their mark of 103 over the course of that game would make them one of the ten fastest offenses over the course of the season.

The Nuggets, winners of six straight, are off to their best start in franchise history, having thrashed the LeBron-less Los Angeles Lakers by 24 points Sunday night.

And while the Pelicans have been spectacular on the defensive end over the past week, the Nuggets have been so over the course of their first 29 games, ranking second in the NBA in defensive rating (103.5).

With the league’s sixth-best SRS, the Nuggets sit second in the Western Conference thanks to their defense and rank in the top-ten in nearly every major category (save shooting where they are one of the worst).

They don’t shoot threes like the others (24th at 30 per game), they don’t get to the line (28th), but they are one of the league’s best at protecting the basketball (seventh), which comes naturally to a slower-paced team.

Led by Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, the Nuggets have been playing like one of the very best teams in the NBA. Taking them down will be a tall feat but the Pelicans have done it once this year already.

The Pelicans posted a decisive 15-point victory on Halloween night. They did it by holding Jokic to just six shots and Murray to just 14 points on 6/14 shooting.

The Pelicans held their starters to just 48 combined points. Brandon Ingram and Jrue Holiday nearly outscored them on all their own (44).

The Pelicans leading scorer? Jahlil Okafor, with 26 on 8/13 shooting and a game-leading positive 19 plus-minus.

Jah has struggled significantly recently and found himself nearly out of the rotation with the return of Favors and improved play of Hayes. But he naturally has a profound effect on Jokic and has been outstanding against him in previous matchups.

So, does Gentry go away from the hot hands? Probably not. But should the Pelicans get down early, trying Okafor against Jokic might be a possible solution.

Either way, we want to wish you happy holidays from all of us at The Bird Writes. Enjoy the games, but more importantly enjoy the holiday!

Geaux Pels!

Where To Watch/Listen

What: New Orleans Pelicans (8-23) at Denver Nuggets (21-8)

Where: Pepsi Center - Denver, CO

When: Wednesday, December 25, 2019 9:30 PM CST

How: ESPN, FSNO