The losing streak now stands at nine games.
The New Orleans Pelicans battled hard against the Denver Nuggets but wound up on the wrong side of a 122-113 final score.
Surprisingly, it was smooth sailing for much of the first half. The first possession saw a number of crisp passes that led to an easy Jonas Valanciunas lay-in. The good ball and man movement continued.
At the 4:35 mark of the second quarter, the Pelicans were enjoying a 53-41 lead. They then hit the first of three speed bumps on the night.
Brandon Ingram immediately had two turnovers, and then shortly, a third, after bowling over Nikola Jokic during a 3-on-2 fast break. In between, the Pelicans missed a handful of shots, some quite makable.
McCollum had a couple of drives in the first half that should have come closer to going in than they did. Valanciunas missed several shots near the rim in the second that normally go down.
That was really the tale of the game.
New Orleans’ precision simply needed to be better from start to finish, both in terms of shooting and execution. When the Pelicans turned it over, the Nuggets ran it down for scores seemingly every time — they finished with a 26-15 fast break edge — and in the half court, they looked far more ready for the playoffs as their stars did a much better job of grabbing the bull by the horns.
The Pelicans’ three-point halftime lead was turned upside down not a minute into the third. The Nuggets splashed home back-to-back 3s and proceeded to take advantage of another offensive lull by New Orleans that produced only nine points for almost the first seven minutes.
“End of the second quarter going into the third, we just stopped moving the basketball,” Willie Green said. “We stopped making the simple plays. Good teams have a tendency to try and take you out of what you do.
“We have to continue to execute over and over again and not get bored. I thought we got a little comfortable late in the second and at the start of the third. That was the difference in the game.”
The 3-ball was particularly a sore subject. The Nuggets scored 24 more points than the Pelicans from behind the arc for the game. Jamal Murray knocked down seven 3s, nearly matching New Orleans’ team total of eight makes by himself.
Murray finished with 32 points, five rebounds and six assists. Outside of a few bad passes, he resembled the player we last saw in the Orlando bubble. He was phenomenal in finding space, rising up over the defense and pouring in points.
For as well as Murray played, though, Jokic one-upped him with a line of 26 points, 18 rebounds and 15 assists. None of those stats are a misprint. There’s good reason why many believe he’s the frontrunner for the 2023 MVP Award and this Tuesday evening serves as yet another great example.
Despite falling behind quickly in the third, the Pelicans hung tough and kept the deficit manageable. That’s why the start of the fourth, their final speed bump, felt like a gut punch.
On their first two possessions in the final frame, the Pelicans produced two bad turnovers. The Nuggets turned them into easy fast break points. Suddenly trailing by 13, the Pelicans still didn’t quit; however, the writing would soon appear on the wall.
While Larry Nance Jr., Herb Jones and several others were largely doing their part, Ingram couldn’t find the bottom of the net. He made a lone field goal out of five attempts in the fourth quarter, finishing with 16 points on 5-of-17 shooting.
This performance marks three straight games of subpar accuracy from Ingram since returning from a 29-game absence.
There’s no doubt that rust was expected after such a long layoff. And no one should overlook his other contributions. BI’s passing was on point, with nine assists. The effort was there on the glass and defensively, too.
But in the same breath, the Pelicans are floundering and in need of a life raft. They desperately needed in-rhythm Brandon Ingram against the West-leading Nuggets.
Nance (13 points, 11 rebounds, two steals) performed admirably given his assignment was often the much bigger Jokic, McCollum had 21 points and seven assists and Trey Murphy added 14 points and two steals, but Jones was clearly New Orleans’ most effective contributor.
Along with staying healthy this season, Jones has struggled immensely with his perimeter shot, but he may be showing signs of breaking out of a long slump. After knocking down 2-of-3 from beyond the arc a few days ago in Milwaukee, he made 2-of-4 3s in Denver.
Please, though, don’t get fixated on his 3-point shot.
When Jones is right, he provides value across the board. He comes up with so many winning plays. Tonight’s final line of 21 points, four rebounds, four assists and five steals is clear evidence of that. So too was making 6-of-8 field goals and 7-of-8 free throws.
Against the best, you’ve got to be at your best. Especially at their place. Brandon Ingram and the Pelicans as a whole were not, but hopefully, this performance was yet another sign that the doldrums are near at an end.
Let’s hope so anyway. In a month’s time, the Pelicans have slipped from second place in the Western Conference to 10th. If they keep sliding, they’ll fall right out of the play-in picture as well.
January was a disaster. Thank goodness it’s finally February.
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