NEW ORLEANS — Nikola Jokic threw passes as wild as a night out on Bourbon Street.
More often than not, they worked.
In the end, the Nuggets survived a frantic, last-ditch effort from the Pelicans on Tuesday night, seizing a 99-98 win. What was once a 19-point lead dwindled under the incessant energy of Jose Alvarado, and C.J. McCollum missed a corner 3-pointer at the buzzer that would’ve won it.
Instead, the Nuggets hung on as both Jokic and head coach Michael Malone returned to action. Jokic, who finished with a 25-point, 11-rebound, 10-assist triple-double, buried a short floater in the lane with 16 seconds left to give Denver the lead.
Jamal Murray poured in 25 points of his own, to go along with seven assists. The Nuggets improved to 34-14 on the season, with a grueling back-to-back in Milwaukee on Wednesday night.
The Nuggets were without Michael Porter Jr. (personal reasons) and Bones Hyland (sprained finger) yet managed to overcome both absences. It helped, of course, that New Orleans was out Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.
The Nuggets went to their bread-and-butter to start the second half. While Murray and Jokic engineered their two-man game, Aaron Gordon lingered as a threat. Jokic softened up the Pelicans’ defense with an early over-the-top lob to Gordon. The All-Star candidate then swatted another look on defense. Once the Pelicans had whittled the lead to single digits, Denver went to its most dangerous weapon: Jokic inside. He calmed the waters with a quick bucket down low before the reserves restored some order, helping to forge an 83-74 lead going into the fourth.
After spending the last four games observing (and yelling) from his basement, Malone couldn’t wait to return to work. He said getting on the plane to New Orleans was akin to Christmas morning. When players and staffers were hesitant to engage him after clearing COVID, he was insistent.
“I’ve been cleared, man!” he joked prior to Tuesday’s game.
From afar, Malone watched his team go 3-1, marveled at Jokic’s special dominance and cheered as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope played staunch defense. When Murray missed the potential game-tying shot vs. Oklahoma City, Malone called him afterwards.
“I wanted to hug him,” Malone said.
Cleared from his “spartan-type living” quarters, Malone returned to find a team that had barely skipped a beat.
They played feisty, engaged defense on one end and shared the ball feverishly on the other. Their 63-47 halftime lead was indicative of both.
Murray was aggressive and hunting his offense, finishing with 19 first-half points and three 3-pointers. Jokic was uncharacteristically aggressive, too. He poured in 13 points with five rebounds and five assists. Collectively, the Nuggets whipped 18 assists over the first two quarters.
But the Nuggets built their margin on defense. They deflected passes, flipped the court and found easy baskets in transition. If it wasn’t Brown stuffing an opponent, then it was Caldwell-Pope being opportunistic in the passing lanes. He ripped the ball late in the first half and lofted a smooth alley-oop lob to Murray for the dunk.
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