The Denver Nuggets earned a hard-fought 117-111 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Friday. The Nuggets trailed by as many as 18 in the first half but came all the way back to overtake New Orleans in overtime. Here are five observations from the game.
1. Nuggets win knock-down, drag-out game
The final stretch of Friday's game was part basketball game, part street fight. Elbows were out. Whistles were few and far between. Mason Plumlee and DeMarcus Cousins spent most of the fourth quarter sumo wrestling down low. It was the type of game the Nuggets have often come up short in. Except this time they didn't.
Denver limited New Orleans to 18 fourth-quarter points. The Nuggets held their own as the game devolved into a bare-knuckle fight, much to their head coach's delight.
"To win a very physical game down the stretch, win it with our defense, is very pleasing as a coach," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said afterward. "Because in the long run if you want to be a playoff team, these are the types of games you have to win.”
New Orleans shot 36 percent in the fourth quarter, which helped Denver erase a 10-point deficit.
2. Mason Plumlee mucks it up
On paper there was nothing spectacular about Plumlee's performance. His counting numbers — nine points and nine rebounds in 31 minutes — were so-so. What Plumlee brought to the table against a nasty, talented opponent in Cousins was invaluable though.
Cousins still finished with 29 points, due in large part to shooting 5-8 from beyond the 3-point arc. But when Cousins tried to operate inside, Plumlee made life difficult.
“I thought Mason Plumlee was great," Malone said. "He met the challenge of guarding one of the toughest guys in the league in DeMarcus Cousins.”
The Nuggets outscored the Pelicans by 10 points when Plumlee was on the floor. Plumlee blocked two shots and helped harass Cousins into nine turnovers.
"When you guard DeMarcus, you have to get into your mind that it’s going to be hand-to-hand combat," Malone said.
The Nuggets could only rely on Nikola Jokic, who was on a minutes restriction in his first game back from an ankle sprain, so much. Plumlee stepped up in a big way.
3. Will Barton provides the late-game heroics once again
There aren't many times during a game when Will Barton doesn't want the ball.
"Will always want the ball," Malone said. "Will could be 0 for 10 and say, 'Coach, give me the ball. Give me the ball.'"
To the surprise of no one, Barton took the reins once the game went into overtime and did not disappoint. Barton scored 11 of Denver's 13 points in the extra five-minute period. He hit a three with the shot clock winding down, a floater, a dunk in transition and then another three going to his right after nearly turning the ball over.
Barton finished with 19 points (8-14 FG), four rebounds, six assists and two steals — another big night from the self-proclaimed "People's Champ."
Barton dealt the finishing blows in overtime, but it was Trey Lyles who helped Denver get there in the first place. In the fourth quarter, Lyles exploded for 13 points. He hit three of the five three-pointers he attempted in the period.
Lyles scored 19 points in 30 minutes. It was the fourth consecutive game he logged 25 minutes or more. In that stretch of games, he's averaging 18.3 points on 65 percent shooting and 5.5 rebounds.
"He gets buckets," Gary Harris said. "That’s what Trey does. His offense has been great for us. So I’m happy to see him play well."
Lyles has sunk 26 of 53 three-pointers this season — a scorching 49.1 percent clip. The 22-year-old is coming into his own after spending the first part of the season on the bench because of the log jam at power forward.
Torrey Craig earned the first NBA start of his career Friday. It came as somewhat of a surprise; 24 hours earlier, he'd been in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, preparing to play for the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the G League.
Craig logged 19 solid-but-not-spectacular minutes. He made one of the plays of the game in the waning seconds of regulation, blocking Jrue Holiday's step-back jumper.
"He gets a 4 o’clock wakeup call on a 5:15 call," Malone said. "He gets here for shootaround. I start him. He plays well.
"Welcome to the NBA. That kid is an NBA player. I believe in him. I think you’re going to see more and more great things from Torrey Craig moving forward."
Malone sounds ready to give Craig a bigger role. Craig's defense is the reason why.