The final game of the Christmas Day schedule did not disappoint. Though the New Orleans Pelicans ran away from the Denver Nuggets in a final few minutes for a 112-100 win, it was a competitive contest for the first 40-plus minutes.
It wasn't the prettiest game of basketball anyone has ever seen -- both teams combined for 30 turnovers -- but it was far more interesting than anyone was expecting. Looking at the slate of games on Christmas, and the gap in records between the two teams in this matchup, most expected a lopsided win for the Nuggets. But the Pelicans had other ideas and closed out their four-game road trip in style. They secured their first win on Christmas in franchise history and snapped the Nuggets' seven-game winning streak in the process.
Brandon Ingram fired in 31 points thanks to a career-high seven 3-pointers, Jrue Holiday added 20 points, eight assists and six steals in the win and as a team, the Pelicans knocked down 18-of-43 triples. Nikola Jokic led the Nuggets with 23 points, but was just 8-of-20 from the field.
Here are some key takeaways from the Pelicans' win:
Last game of the day delivers
When my colleague Colin Ward-Henninger re-ranked the Christmas Day games, he understandably put Pelicans-Nuggets last in terms of watchability. No Zion Williamson, a bad Pelicans team at the end of a long road trip and a streaking Nuggets team at home seemed like a bad combination for late-night basketball. Just about everyone expected the Nuggets to run away and hide with this one. Instead, the Pelicans looked like the team they were hoping to be heading into the season, which is one capable of challenging for a playoff spot at the bottom of the Western Conference. As a result, we were treated to a competitive, if not always super well-played game.
The whole night was a back-and-forth affair, and neither team led by more than eight points until the Pelicans pulled away late in the fourth. Plus, even though the game was often sloppy at times, the frenetic pace led to some true highlight-reel moments, including a halfcourt heave from JJ Redick to beat the buzzer at halftime, a stunning block by Will Barton and a brilliant pass by Jrue Holiday.
"This is why they play the games," as they say. In this case, everyone was happy to be wrong. Sorry for doubting you, Nuggets and Pelicans, this game was a lot of fun.
Zion's injury under the spotlight again
Williamson's knee surgery and subsequent absence has been a story all season long, but this game really highlighted the issue. First and foremost, the Pelicans playing on Christmas was another reminder that he's still not playing. While the Pels have had a number of national TV games this season, Christmas is just different. The audience is massive, and it's the first time many people around the country are paying serious attention to the league, so it's a big bummer to have a player as fun as Williamson sitting on the sideline.
Then, the Pelicans' performance added another layer to the disappointment. After winning the No. 1 pick and taking Williamson, there was real optimism in New Orleans that they could be a solid team this season, even after trading away Anthony Davis. They had an exciting young core, a stud point guard in Jrue Holiday and added some solid veterans. This game was a reminder of that promise. Ingram, who has taken a step forward this season, was terrific in this game, Holiday was his steady self and they played extremely fast and forced the action all night long.
Obviously they were never going to compete at the top of the conference, but the bottom of the playoff picture in the West is not impressive, and they could have made some noise if they were playing all season as they did on Wednesday night -- especially if Williamson was healthy. Instead, they're just a few games ahead of the Warriors for the worst record in the conference and are likely going to end up trading some of their veterans such as Holiday.
A Christmas no-show from the Nuggets
During his coach's interview after the end of the third quarter, the Nuggets' Michael Malone quipped, "We look like we enjoyed Christmas morning a little bit too much." It's hard to find a better way to sum up what happened to his team in this game.
New Orleans jumped out to a 9-1 lead, and though Denver worked their way back into the game from that point, it foreshadowed what was to come. The intensity was never there, and they just weren't sharp on either end of the floor. They shot 40.2 percent from the field overall, 32.4 percent from 3 and turned the ball over 12 times. Those kinds of things are going to happen sometimes, but what's more frustrating for the Nuggets was the way they were outworked in the second half.
The Pelicans crashed the glass for 14 offensive rebounds, 13 of which came in the second half and led to important second-chance points. One, in particular, summed up the night well. With three minutes left in the fourth, the Pelicans were up by seven and threatening to pull away. After a missed jumper by Lonzo Ball, Holiday snuck inside and ripped a rebound away from Jokic, then kicked it out to Ingram for a 3 to put the Pels up by 10. The Nuggets never got closer.
Christmas or not, these are the type of games the Nuggets will look back on and regret if they're unable to secure a top seed in the West this season. The Pelicans are probably a bit better than their record indicates, but this isn't a game an elite team should be losing at home.