The Denver Nuggets entered New Orleans with an undefeated record in the In-Season Tournament on Friday night.

They exited with a 2-1 record.

The Nuggets lost on Friday night to the New Orleans Pelicans behind strong efforts from stars Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, as well as key contributions from Dyson Daniels, Jonas Valanciunas, and other role players. It was an impressive effort from the Pelicans who shot 12-of-22 from three-point range as a team and made enough plays down the stretch to fold off a furious Nuggets comeback effort.

At halftime, the Nuggets trailed by 16 points and needed a miracle just to get back in the game on the road. Nikola Jokic delivered as best as he could, scoring 26 points, grabbing 16 rebounds, and dishing out an absurd 18 assists, tying a career high. It was a level of all-around impact that is rarely seen before. In fact, nobody in NBA history, regular season or playoffs, has ever put together at least those numbers in combination with each other in a single game.

Still, the three-point shooting continues to be an achilles heel. Jokic shot 1-of-8 from three tonight and is now shooting 8-of-35 (22.9%) from distance over his last five games. It’s difficult to hold Jokic to an even higher standard, but if he makes 3-of-8 tonight, the Nuggets probably win the game.

The Nuggets defense was a train wreck early on and put them behind the eight ball early in the game. The Pelicans scored 36 points in the first quarter, and though Denver’s defense improved as the game went on, it was the early paint scoring by Williamson, Ingram, Valanciunas, and Dyson Daniels that put the Nuggets on their heels.

Williamson continued his interior domination against Zeke Nnaji, who was yanked from the rotation after four minutes with two fouls, two turnovers, zero points, and zero rebounds. Nnaji wasn’t ready to go and remained attached to the bench in the second half. So did Julian Strawther, as the Nuggets were -16 in Strawther’s nine minutes and couldn’t defend or score during that time.

That left the Nuggets with eight players they trusted for the rest of the game, and there were some good flashes from most of them. Christian Braun was the greatest positive, scoring 25 points and adding nine rebounds and three assists to the tally. Braun had some incredible finishes around the rim, including on an offensive rebound he secured over Herb Jones and Valanciunas. Braun tipped the rebound to himself, went up with a right handed layup, only to switch hands midair and contort for a lefty finish. 25 points is Braun’s career high, and it felt like a breakout game for the young wing after several games of middling effectiveness.

Aaron Gordon was up and down throughout the contest but turned up the intensity in the fourth quarter, forcing several misses by Williamson and Ingram. Ditto for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who found times to impact the game defensively. Caldwell-Pope also hit a clutch three-pointer while fading out of bounds to cut the Pelicans lead, then helped force a turnover to allow the Nuggets a finish shot opportunity.

With 40 seconds left and down three points, the Nuggets had three chances to hit a three and tie the game taken by Reggie Jackson, Caldwel-Pope, and Gordon. Multiple offensive rebounds and opportunities didn’t help though, as the Nuggets came up empty. There were opportunities to find Jokic and Michael Porter Jr. late, but the shots the Nuggets got were good looks, and they just didn’t go down.

After a hard fought loss to begin a five-game road trip, the Nuggets will now go to face the Cleveland Cavaliers and Detroit Pistons on a back-to-back Sunday and Monday. Jamal Murray looks to be on track to return, but it almost certainly won’t be for those games. There’s a chance Murray plays by the end of the road trip, but for now, don’t expect reinforcements. The Nuggets have what they have in their rotation. They have to figure it out.

To date, the bench has been extremely disappointing. The Nuggets are trying different combinations and lineups to see what sticks, but the same combination that works one day is just as likely to fail the next. That’s what happens with a group of young guys that are still trying to find their place within the Nuggets and the NBA.

Although, Zeke Nnaji has less of an excuse there than anyone coming off the bench. This is Nnaji’s fourth year and he just got paid. Nnaji now has a positive plus-minus in just one of the 12 games he’s played. While plus-minus is certainly a lineup dependent stat, the Nuggets have to find more ways for him to participate in his own on-court impact. He had a 0-0-0-0-0 game tonight, and that just can’t happen.

As for the In-Season Tournament, the Nuggets’ final tournament matchup is against the Houston Rockets next Friday night at the end of the road trip. It’s likely that the winner of that game will win West Group B, which means the Nuggets will need to put their best foot forward if they want to win the entire thing.

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