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Nine Nuggets for every fourth-quarter point Gary Harris scored in a 116-111 win over the Pelicans on Monday.
1. Grind-it-out wins over teams down one starter and an MVP candidate count the same as wins over the defending champs. That was the message the muted philosopher Gary Harris sent following a closer-than-it-should’ve been victory over a Pelicans team that was without starting point guard Elfrid Payton and all-world center Anthony Davis: “There are still a lot of areas we can improve on, but we keep getting these wins,” Harris said. “That’s the point of it all: to win.”
2. Harris is right, of course. The Nuggets dropped a game in December to a Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers team that came back to bite them when they fell inches short of a postseason berth. Denver almost squandered an 18-point lead Monday — it got down to two at one point in the fourth quarter — but it didn’t. The Nuggets are 5-1. They avoided their first losing streak of the season. They’ve got a chance to make their record look pretty with games against Chicago and Cleveland on the horizon. But there were issues that shouldn’t be papered over because Denver got the result it was looking for.
3. First and foremost: the offense. The Nuggets aren’t lighting the scoreboard up six games into 2018-19 like we’re accustomed to seeing. Against New Orleans, they made only 11 of 35 looks from 3-point range. Denver is making 8.5 3-pointers per game this season, which is down from 11.5 last season, and it’s shooting 28.7 percent from long range, which is down from 37.1 percent a year ago.
4. Will Barton’s injury is partially to blame for the shooting woes. The Nuggets have asked Torrey Craig to step in as the starting small forward in Barton’s absence, and so far, Craig has lacked confidence in his stroke. In the last four games, Craig is 2 for 12 from 3. He’s scored 16 points in 85 minutes. Thursday, LeBron James spent long stretches of the game ignoring Craig. Despite all that, Malone said he has no plans to change his starting lineup.
“We’re 5-1,” Malone said. “Torrey Craig has proven to me time and time again that he’s capable of helping our team win and win big games. Torrey will get the start once again in Chicago. Tonight, yeah, I pulled him early. It wasn’t his night, but that doesn’t mean that next game in Chicago won’t be.”
5. Denver’s inability to get into its sets is also an issue. Malone was forced to burn a timeout midway through the first quarter when his team looked discombobulated. “One, it’s on your point guard,” Malone said. “He’s got to run your team. He’s got to make sure what we’re in. We look like a dysfunctional group at times. You’ve got two guys running one play. You’ve got three guys running another play. You can’t afford to have those lapses with your execution if you want to be a really good basketball team.”
6. The point guard Malone was referring to: Jamal Murray. For the second game in a row, Murray put up impressive counting numbers but struggled with the finer points of running a team. Lonzo Ball gave Murray issues with full-court pressure earlier this week. Murray didn’t do a great job under duress again four nights later. Denver was trying to put the game on ice with about a minute remaining when Murray lost the ball, which Tim Frazier collected and drove down for a layup. Overall, Murray committed more turnovers (three) than assists (two).
“I got on Jamal,” Malone said. “I got on all of our players. If we’re going to run an offense, make sure you know what the hell we’re in.”
7. Monday’s fourth quarter turned chaotic in certain moments, but throughout it all, Harris kept his cool. Harris scored nine of his 23 in the final frame. He subbed into the game with 8:32 remaining on an inbounds play and drilled a step-back jumper with the shot clock winding down.
His most impressive bucket of the game came later in the quarter, when Harris used a turnaround move to trick Jrue Holliday. Holliday is one of the strongest guards in the league. Look how easily Harris knocks him off his path.
Harris, the Nuggets’ longest-tenured player, has been so dependable in big moments this season. He’s averaging 20.0 points per game even though his 3-point shot isn’t yet falling like it usually does. He’s been able to compensate by knocking down midrange shots at a 57 percent rate, per Cleaning the Glass.
8. Harris was excellent, and so was Malik Beasley. All summer, Denver’s coaching staff stressed to Beasley that he needed to play a more under control brand of basketball to earn their trust. Beasley has done that. Monday, he scored 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting and grabbed six rebounds in 31 minutes of floor time. Beasley played all but 1 minute and 56 seconds in the second half. The Nuggets outscored the Pelicans by 10 points with him on the floor. If Beasley can continue to knock down outside shots, play within the flow of the offense and provide strong on-ball defense, there will be rotation minutes for him while (at least while Barton is sidelined).
9. The Nuggets are winning ugly with regularity in the early part of the season. They shot 45.2 percent Monday, while the Pelicans shot 52.4 percent. It was the fourth time the Nuggets have been outshot this season. They are 4-0 in those game. It’s a good thing Denver is winning without playing its best offensively. But at some point, the Nuggets need to look like the Nuggets.