The Nuggets turned in one of their best defensive efforts of the season on the road Tuesday night in their 99-98 win over the Pelicans. New Orleans was shorthanded and without Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram, but holding any NBA team to under 100 points on their home floor is a significant achievement regardless of who’s playing. Factor in the Nuggets’ 26th-ranked road defense heading into the Pelicans matchup, and you can get a sense of how notable of a defensive performance this was.
Denver did its best defensive work in the first half. New Orleans tallied just 24 points in the first quarter. Then in the second, an 18-5 run from a new-look Nuggets second unit vaulted Denver to a double-digit lead.
It was as impressive of a defensive stretch as we’ve seen from the Nuggets’ bench all season. With Bones Hyland out of the lineup due to a sprained finger, Michael Malone went to Christian Braun in his place, flanked by Jamal Murray, Zeke Nnaji, Jeff Green and Vlatko Cancar. The result was a bigger, more stout defensive group that switched 1-5 and frustrated the Pelicans’ offense.
That five-man lineup inherited a 26-24 lead when they checked into the game at the 1:17 mark of the first quarter. When they subbed out midway through the second quarter, the scoreboard read 44-29. Over that roughly seven-minute stretch, the Nuggets held the Pelicans to 1-11 shooting.
The switching that Denver did with this lineup on the floor really stood out.
Zeke Nnaji can be really effective in that type of defensive scheme. Watch him switch out onto Devonte’ Graham and force him to make a tough pass that Jeff Green is able to deflect.
Christian Braun is big and strong enough to guard Larry Nance in the post and switches onto the forward with ease here. This was another great all-around game from Braun, who produces every single time that he plays rotation minutes.
Denver’s switching defense generated a steal here.
Nnaji had a great defensive first half. He was matched up against Trey Murphy, who’s two inches shorter than Nnaji and plays on the perimeter. The Pelicans tried to run Nnaji off screens and Murphy tried to take him off the dribble. Nnaji mostly shut him down.
Shout-out to Nnaji for this ridiculous sequence. He switches onto CJ McCollum and shuts McCollum down when he tries to take him off the dribble. Then he flies all the way out to half-court to chase after a loose ball — this wasn’t ideal — but is somehow able to get back into the play and prevents Murphy from shooting this 3. Just an incredible amount of effort on this play.
Tuesday night was the first time that the Murray-Braun-Cancar-Green-Nnaji played together this season, and it only saw the floor because both Hyland and Michael Porter Jr. were out of the lineup. Bruce Brown was elevated to Denver’s starting lineup, which meant there were minutes for Braun off the bench.
This new bench lineup looked really good. Obviously on defense, but also on offense. When those five were on the court together in the first half, the Nuggets shot 7-9 from the floor. They faltered in the second half though. Denver couldn’t generate the same good looks and couldn’t guard Jose Alvarado. The Nuggets played great defense on everybody except one player last night.
Hyland’s absence was notable. I don’t think Denver’s bench can’t switch like it did in New Orleans with him on the floor. On offense, the ball barely stuck with that group too. It can stick from time to time when the regular Murray-Hyland your-turn-my-turn second-unit backcourt plays together. However, you felt Hyland’s absence in last night’s second half when that group was struggling to score.
We could get another look at the latest version of the Nuggets’ second unit tonight in Milwaukee. They’ll need to bring the same defensive energy that they did in New Orleans on the second leg of a brutal back-to-back.