The Denver Nuggets defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 122-113 on Tuesday night in a TNT matchup.

After two losses in a row to tough opponents on the road, the Nuggets needed a bounce back performance at home. Things were looking shaky in the first half for a while, but the Nuggets tightened up defensively in the second half. The Pelicans converted just one three-pointer in the second half, a poor shooting performance when they needed to keep pace with an elite offense.

“I told our team, that was one of the worst halves we’ve played all year, and we’re only down three,” Michael Malone shared with media postgame. That Denver was able to flip the momentum heading into the half and capitalize in the third quarter was a big deal for the rest of the night.

The Nuggets did what they needed to do in the second half and emerged with a victory.

Here are my takeaways from the Nuggets matchup with the Pelicans on Tuesday night:

Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray were absolutely on one

It was a healthy expectation that Jokić and Murray would bounce back from a tough loss in Philadelphia, and that was exactly what happened. Jokić put together an incredible performance of 26 points on 10-of-14 shooting to go with 18 rebounds and 15 assists. The Nuggets were +20 in Jokić’s 38 minutes and -9 in the 10 minutes he sat.

Some of the moves Jokić made were extremely fundamental. Some of them were absurd.

Jokić absolutely rose to the occasion when the Nuggets needed him. He made great decisions with the basketball, hustled in the right moments, outworking the big man trio of Jonas Valanciunas, Willy Hernangomez, and Larry Nance Jr. when it mattered.

Jokić is also averaging a triple-double now (actually one total assist short) but it seems like he doesn’t care that much about the statistical average.

Murray got hot and stayed hot in the game, putting up 32 points on 10-of-21 from the field and 7-of-12 from three-point range. He added six assists and five rebounds, though he and Jokić both had five turnovers in what was a sloppier game than usual. Still, when the Nuggets got shots up, they destroyed the Pelicans defense. Murray made Herb Jones, CJ McCollum, Devonte’ Graham, and Jose Alvarado invisible out there.

“I was just playing. Nothing happened. I was just open early,” Murray said postgame of his 12 three-point attempts. It’s the highest number of three-point attempts of the season so far for Murray, and when he attempts a high number like that, he’s often in a great rhythm.

The bench remains as in-flux as ever

It became clear early on in the substitution pattern tonight that the Nuggets simply weren’t going to get a lot from their bench. Bruce Brown and Jeff Green were the first subs off the bench, and the Nuggets immediately ran into some turnovers and defensive issues. That continued when Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji got on the floor as well, perhaps even more pronounced. In the second quarter, Green and Hyland were particularly bad defensively and allowed several open shots, leading Michael Malone to sub in Christian Braun. Braun fared little better but at least hustled, grabbing the only three rebounds accumulated by the entire bench unit in the first half.

In the second half, things didn’t improve because Malone didn’t take that chance. Hyland and Nnaji were both benched, and the Nuggets went with an eight-man rotation instead that featured Braun, as well as Gordon staggering with Caldwell-Pope. The lineup worked mostly in the sense that they didn’t give up a ton of points, though the offense left a lot to be desired.

The Hyland trade rumors have been persistent lately, but Malone chose to back his backup point guard.

“I stand with Bones,” Malone declared postgame. “Bones is on our team. I stand with all of our players in that locker room. He got a chance to play tonight. That group was struggling a little bit. It wasn’t just because of Bones Hyland. I threw CB out there and I thought CB had a good night.”

“I’m with every one of our players. Win, lose, or draw.”

The reality is, the Nuggets are still trying to figure out who they can trust for big minutes. Brown is going to be out there for sure, and his versatility will be key to any title run the Nuggets attempt. Beyond Brown, Green clearly has the trust of Malone and the coaching staff, right or wrong. Hyland played just five minutes tonight. Zeke Nnaji is a low minute option. Christian Braun and Vlatko Čančar appear to be on the outside of the rotation looking in.

Time will tell what the bench looks like in the next couple of weeks.

Defense takes a step back

The Pelicans only shot 8-of-27 from three-point range tonight, a good number that brought Denver’s defense into a better realm than where it started the night. The Pelicans shot 7-of-15 from three in the first and 1-of-12 in the second.

“We had a group out there at one point – Bruce, KCP, Christian, Aaron, and Jeff – and that lineup man, they got some stops,” Malone shared. “That lineup is really versatile. You can switch everything. They can fly around.”

The first half saw the Nuggets give up plenty of open shots at the rim and behind the arc. Jokić’s defense wasn’t great, and the bench didn’t fare any better. Malone made the change to add both Caldwell-Pope and Gordon to the second unit in the second half, removing Bones and Zeke. That bore some fruit defensively.

Christian Braun got scored on, but he still needs to play. His consistent attitude and effort helps Denver’s defense, even if he makes some individual mistakes from time to time. Getting him reps before the playoffs will only help.

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