When the Christmas Day schedule was made, the nightcap of the five-game slate looked like an intriguing one. New Orleans, with No. 1 pick Zion Williamson, playing against the Denver Nuggets, one of the rising teams in the NBA.
A little luster has come off the game with Williamson yet to make his NBA debut due to a knee injury, but the Nuggets aren’t taking the Pelicans lightly. New Orleans has just eight wins, but its first one this season came against Denver on Oct. 31.
“We’ve got to be ready to play. We weren’t ready to play them the last game,” Nuggets center Mason Plumlee told reporters. “They’re a fast-paced team, they get up and down and we’ve got to be better.”
The Pelicans are starting to turn things around after a horrendous stretch where they lost 13 in a row. They broke that streak with a win at Minnesota on Dec. 18 and two games later beat the Trail Blazers in Portland on Monday night.
A win on Christmas night would give New Orleans a 3-1 road trip and — with Williamson pushing himself more of late — hope that the rookie will make his NBA debut soon. He took part in the team’s shootaround before the game in Portland and was working hard on the court before the tip.
“He’s done some stuff,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said before Monday’s game. “But as I said we’re taking it slow and he’s working his butt off to get back out on the court. When the time comes, we’ll put him out there.”
Even having a fully healthy Williamson might not matter against the streaking Nuggets. Denver has won seven in a row, its longest winning streak since reeling off 15 straight in 2012-13. The Nuggets beat the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix on the road on consecutive nights, each impressive in a different way.
Sunday’s win over the Lakers came with LeBron James sitting but Denver dominated the rest of the team. On Monday the Nuggets rallied from nine down midway through the fourth to beat the Suns on Jamal Murray’s jumper with 2.5 seconds left.
Denver rewarded coach Michael Malone with a contract extension on Tuesday, reportedly through the 2022-23 season.
If New Orleans has a chance to pull off its third win in four games it will have to stop Murray, who had 28 points Monday, and Nikola Jokic, who put up his sixth triple-double of the season against Phoenix. The two have been the catalysts since a loss at Philadelphia on Dec. 10, as well as the play of Paul Millsap, Gary Harris and Will Barton.
“Will Barton, we’ve known he’s a good player but he’s continuing to get better,” Plumlee said.
Denver puts its winning streak on the line on prime time, and the players are excited for the chance to play in a marquee game.
“I haven’t been a part of one yet but to be able to play on Christmas, it’s a great opportunity for us and it shows we’re viewed as one of those elite teams, which is pretty cool,” rookie Michael Porter Jr. said.
–Field Level Media