DENVER — Watching the Denver Nuggets without Nikola Jokic is like taking down a bowl of cereal without milk.
There’s nothing appetizing about it.
Without their franchise cornerstone, the Nuggets sputtered to the visiting New Orleans Pelicans, snapping their four-game winning streak with a 107-88 loss. Their offense was uncharacteristically ugly, with awful 3-point shooting, mounting turnovers in the fourth quarter and a cold streak from the free throw line.
Asked where he felt the game went wrong, Nuggets coach Michael Malone was blunt.
“Well, Nikola didn’t play,” he said, before crediting his team for competing without their generational talent.
Jokic watched helplessly from the sidelines, as he sat with a calf injury. A win would’ve made sitting Jokic for Friday’s back-to-back at Phoenix more palatable, but Thursday’s loss could change the equation, slightly. The Nuggets fell to 51-25 overall and 32-7 at home. Their lead over the No 2. Grizzlies shrunk to three games with six games left.
Jamal Murray motored the Nuggets’ offense with 21 points, though without his typical dance partner, many of the possessions deteriorated into an isolation-heavy attack. Murray played 36 minutes, and Malone suggested it was unlikely he’d travel to Phoenix as a precautionary measure.
Michael Porter Jr. struggled mightily from the field, especially from the 3-point line. As a team, Denver shot just 4-of-28 from outside. They also managed just 21 total assists.
“Couldn’t make a shot,” Malone lamented even though he was pleased with the looks.
Brandon Ingram landed a triple-double, carrying the Pelicans with 31 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists. C.J. McCollum was a nuisance as well. New Orleans buried 13-of-27 3-pointers to sink Denver’s chances without their typical offensive firepower.
Bruce Brown was one of the few bright spots. He paced Denver’s second-unit with 19 points. The Nuggets got little from Thomas Bryant, who started in place of Jokic. His defense, ever since the Nuggets acquired him at the trade deadline, has been unreliable.
Porter Jr. momentarily shrugged off his frigid shooting tonight and started attacking to start the third. On one sequence, Murray penetrated and swung to Porter, who attacked the hoop with conviction. Although Denver’s offense momentarily thawed, it couldn’t contain McCollum, who lit up the 3-point line like it was the 2019 playoffs and he was still in Portland. McCollum drained four 3-pointers in the quarter alone, flexing his elite touch to Denver’s detriment.
Christian Braun, the Nuggets’ energy bunny, slashed through the lane for a monstrous jam, and Brown, despite facing a 19-point deficit, didn’t quit. The two continued to attack, eventually whittling the deficit down to 82-70 heading into the fourth quarter.
Nuggets coach Malone was coy about Jokic’s injury before the game.
“Yeah, I think it’s just been something kind of brewing a little bit,” Malone said. “He was able to get through the Philadelphia game. In practice yesterday he didn’t do a whole lot. Obviously, being ultra cautious with where we’re at in the season. … If there’s any doubt, we’re going to definitely err on the side of caution with seven games remaining in the regular season.”
When Jokic didn’t appear for his typical pre-game shooting time, it was fairly obvious he wasn’t in line to play. He did appear midway through the first half, wearing a dapper green jacket on the Nuggets’ bench. At one timeout, he and veteran DeAndre Jordan coached Zeke Nnaji on his defensive positioning, but his absence on the court was painfully apparent.
Denver entered halftime down 50-40, with awful shooting percentages to match their low score. They made only 3 of 19 3-point attempts in the first half, and all three came off looks from Murray. Beyond his scoring punch, nothing was falling outside the lane.
Brown was the other spark in the first half, spearheading Denver’s second unit with his relentless drives to the hoop. On a listless night without their engine, Brown’s energy and effort were invaluable.
Malone was wary of New Orleans’ suffocating defense (No. 1 over the last five games), and their dual ability to hurt them in the paint and from the perimeter. Both concerns proved true over the first two quarters, as the Pelicans pummeled Denver inside early and then worked their way out to the arc.
“They’re a really good team,” Malone said.