The Denver Nuggets scored just 36 points in the second half tonight, but they scored the final two that mattered at the very end.

Nikola Jokić hit a game-winning floater in the lane with 16.2 seconds remaining to give the Nuggets a 99-98 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. It was a big time shot and made up for some poor process in clutch time, but all that matters at the end of the night is the final score. Jokić navigated his way into the middle of the floor, waiting patiently for a pass from Jamal Murray, who fed Joker a bounce pass and allowed the two-time MVP to do the rest. It was a clutch basket on road in a hostile environment, and the Nuggets needed it desperately.

The Nuggets did almost all of the heavy lifting in the first half, outscoring the Pelicans 63-47. Jamal Murray had 19 of his 25 points in the first half and was going to work against everybody in front of him. The Nuggets shot 8-of-16 from three-point range as a team in the first half compared to just 3-of-17 from three in the second, a significant reason why the game was what it was.

Denver nearly gave this one away due to a litany of factors, including Jose Alvarado. The diminutive backup point guard began the game slowly but heated up in the second half, driving over, under, and around the Nuggets defense for layup after layup. He finished the game with 17 points, but every single basket felt like a hammer blow. The Nuggets ultimately got the last stop at the end, and they were certainly aided by the Pelicans’ poor outside shooting (5-of-22 from three).

Still, a win is a win, and the Nuggets move to 34-14, kicking off an road trip in an eventful way.

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

Nikola Jokić returns and hits the game-winner

Jokić was questionable leading up to this game with a left hamstring strain, but after missing two games and going through his normal warmup, he decided to give it a go.

What ensued was a strong performance and a game-winning shot, though a bit off the highest of high standards that Jokić usually sets for himself. Jokić finished the game with 36 minutes, 25 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists, going 11-of-15 from the field in the process. He and Murray had their wires crossed down the stretch a couple of times, but when Joker got the ball, he often did great things with the possession.

Defensively, there’s a lot to be desired. It’s certainly possible that the hamstring is limiting Jokić’s movement speed. He looked slower than he has for much of the year on the defensive end, and that led to some easy layups for the Pelicans throughout the game. There’s plenty of season left, and the Nuggets will have to monitor Jokić’s movement and how he’s feeling day to day. The Nuggets will need him in a great place athletically when the playoffs roll around, and nights like tonight offer a bit of concern.

Jamal Murray gets hot

In the first half, Murray was absolutely dealing. He had an opportunity in both the starting and second units to be the full-time point guard, and he made the most of his time. 19 of his 25 points and 4 of his 7 assists came in the first half. He was efficient and effective, helping propel the Nuggets out to a strong lead and leaving defenders in the dust throughout the night.

In the second half, Murray slowed down a lot. He shot just 3-of-9 from the field and had six points, and three assists. he also had two bad turnovers in the closing minutes, both on passes to Jokić that just weren’t on target. He was also the primary culprit giving up drives to Alvarado in the fourth quarter, struggling to keep up with the lightning quick point guard.

Slowing down and losing a bit of focus often happens when you play 21 of the 24 second half minutes. Murray carried a heavy burden tonight with no Bones Hyland or Michael Porter Jr. available. The Nuggets put the ball in his hands almost exclusively in the second half. They will need to find more rest opportunities for him.

Good thing the Nuggets play Jrue Holiday and the Milwaukee Bucks tomorrow night.

A new bench lineup raises some questions

Without Bones, the Nuggets changed up their bench unit once again. Bruce Brown started so he wasn’t with that group. Instead, it was Murray staggering, Christian Braun, Vlatko Čančar, Jeff Green, and Zeke Nnaji. There wasn’t a lot of shooting with that unit, and it put a lot of pressure on Murray as a playmaker, and yet, all four bench players plus Murray has a positive plus-minus.

The defense with that group on the floor was mostly great. Zeke Nnaji led the way with his pick and roll switchability, picking up a blocked shot and contested several others. Čančar and Green were big forwards able to clog passing lanes, making ball movement more difficult for New Orleans. Braun also had some key defensive stops and rebounds.

The four bench guys in Denver’s nine-man rotation combined to go 6-of-18 from the field and 1-of-9 from three-point range. So, the fact that they were positive in the plus-minus department is pretty remarkable. It says a lot about having switchable wings and bigs, forcing opposing defenses into isolations and tougher shots/drives as long as the scheme is executed well.

We will see what happens to the Nuggets rotation when Bones and MPJ return. Perhaps it will revert back to normal. Perhaps not.

Final Rotations