NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (4-2) AT DENVER NUGGETS (6-1)
An already challenging three-game Western Conference road trip for New Orleans grew more difficult when prolific three-point shooter and second-leading scorer CJ McCollum (pneumothorax) was ruled out of action for Monday’s excursion opener. His timetable to return is to be determined. Denver is the reigning NBA champion and a tough out for any opponent on its Ball Arena home floor (altitude 5,280 feet), but the Pelicans have enjoyed more success there lately than perhaps any visitor, winning five of their last eight trips to Colorado. Even New Orleans’ defeats at Denver have been close, including separate losses in overtime and by two points since April 2021. The Nuggets and Pelicans are off to encouraging starts in 2023-24, currently in first and fourth place, respectively, in the West standings entering Monday’s game.
The third-year wing from Alabama has lifted his defensive prowess to another level early in the regular season, averaging a career-high 1.8 blocks. Offensively, he’s been at his best throughout his pro career when facing Denver, averaging 14.7 points (tied with Boston for his top scoring production vs. any opponent). Jones has also totaled 19 career steals against the Nuggets in seven outings.
A starter for three consecutive games prior to returning to a reserve role Saturday vs. Atlanta, the rookie from UConn could see another upswing in prominence due to McCollum’s injury. Hawkins deposited a career-best 15 points on 4/8 three-point shooting against the Hawks, his fourth game of draining multiple treys.
Larry Nance Jr.
The backup center sometimes sees an expanded role against Denver, with his defensive versatility an invaluable asset matched against 2023 NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokic or athletic power forward Aaron Gordon. With New Orleans missing various catalysts (Trey Murphy, Jose Alvarado, Naji Marshall, now McCollum), Nance is a vital veteran presence for a mostly-young second unit.
Jokic’s partner in (pick-and-roll) crime won’t play Monday, as guard Jamal Murray has already been ruled out due to a hamstring injury. That could mean a greater scoring burden for Jokic, who seems capable of shifting into whatever mode is needed by the Nuggets. The Serbian center is averaging a career-high 27.4 points through seven games on 63/40 shooting from the field and three-point range, respectively.
Re-signed in free agency this summer, the guard and second-year wing Christian Braun are tied for Denver’s lead in scoring by non-starters, at 8.4 points per game. Jackson could be the Nugget whose role increases most with Murray injured. Previously with the Clippers, Jackson delivered in some big postseason spots for LA.
Michael Porter Jr.
Denver’s third-leading scorer (15.0 ppg) this season becomes the second option sans Murray. Porter notched three games of 30-plus points last season and is coming off a season-best 27-point effort Saturday vs. Chicago.
Previous Game Starting Lineups
Saturday loss vs. Atlanta
CJ McCollum, Herb Jones, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Jonas Valanciunas
Notes: This group is 2-1, but will not be intact Monday due to McCollum’s injury. … Hawkins has started (2-1) in all of the other games, while Matt Ryan (1-0) made a start Thursday vs. Detroit. … The Pelicans’ next 12 games are all against the West, including facing Denver tonight and Nov. 17 in the Smoothie King Center. There are a trio of “baseball series” upcoming vs. Dallas (Nov. 12, 14), Sacramento (Nov. 20, 22) and Utah (Nov. 25, 27), the latter part of a road trip.
Jamal Murray, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr., Aaron Gordon, Nikola Jokic
Notes: This group is 6-1, but will not be intact Monday due to Murray’s injury. The familiar combination went 27-14 last regular season, then 16-4 during the NBA playoffs (43-18 total), en route to the franchise’s first-ever championship. … The Nuggets’ next five games are all against the West, including In-Season Tournament matchups vs. the Clippers (Nov. 14) and at New Orleans (Nov. 17).
LIMIT EASY SCORES
Sometimes defenders need to have eyes in their back of their head when facing Jokic, known to throw passers to cutters from seemingly-impossible angles and to teammates who don’t even realize they’re open in the paint. Partly as a result, Denver is third in the NBA in points in the paint (58.6 per game). Jokic (17.7 average) leads all players in paint points; Williamson ranks third at 17.6.
MATCHUP TO WATCH, PART I
At the starting forward spots, it’s a compelling pair of showdowns, with explosive offensive players Ingram and Porter meeting at the “three” spot, while elite athletes Williamson and Gordon are power forwards who commonly soar above the hardwood.
MATCHUP TO WATCH, PART II
Who will rise to the challenge most individually in the absence of McCollum and Murray? For New Orleans, that could be Hawkins, Ryan or Dyson Daniels during a three-game road trip. For Denver, youngsters such as Braun and rookie Peyton Watson may become more critical to the Nuggets’ success.