NEW ORLEANS (The Sports Xchange) – Denver coach Michael Malone saw his team being left for dead after the Nuggets had lost five of seven games. But, after beating the New Orleans Pelicans 134-131 on Tuesday night to move within a half-game of Portland for the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference playoffs, the Nuggets’ pulse has never been stronger.
“It’s funny. A lot of people keep on counting us out,” Malone said after the Nuggets won despite giving up 75 points in the first half. “We lose three in a row and a lot of people kind of give up hope. Everybody in that locker room is remaining positive, optimistic, and we’re going to play this thing out.”
With five games left, the Nuggets (37-40) are a half-game behind Portland (38-40) in the West; but, because of tiebreakers, they must finish with a better record than the Blazers to make the playoffs. The defeat eliminated the Pelicans (33-45) from playoff contention.
The Nuggets showed grit in recording their second consecutive victory. Danilo Gallinari scored 28 points, including 5 of 10 from long range, to lead seven players in double figures.
Guard Gary Harris scored 23 points and forced two critical turnovers by Jrue Holiday in the final 15.3 seconds, and center Nikola Jokic scored 21 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Wilson Chandler added 18, rookie guard Jamal Murray had 16 points and five assists, Mudiay had 15 and Mason Plumlee had 13 points and 11 rebounds.
The Pelicans trailed 132-131 with 18.2 seconds left when E’Twaun Moore inbounded the ball near half court to Holiday for what was supposed to be a final possession. But under heavy pressure from Harris, Holiday dribbled the ball off his leg and committed a backcourt violation.
Emmanuel Mudiay made 1 of 2 free throws to put Denver up 133-131 with 9.3 seconds left, but New Orleans had another chance to tie or win with another inbounds play from half court. Holiday pivoted near the top of the key and threw a lazy pass for DeMarcus Cousins, which Harris deflected with his left arm and then intercepted, leading to another free throw that provided the final margin.
“Those two plays he had — Gary has great instincts, he anticipates, he has great hands,” Malone said. “That’s why he was an All-American football player coming out of high school (in Indiana) and could’ve gone anywhere in the country. Gary is an incredible athlete, and I think he’s one of the better two-way players in the NBA.”
“I honestly didn’t even see it,” Harris said of his steal of Holiday’s pass. “I just put my hands up and my hands hit the ball.
“I’m a competitor. I’m just good at reacting. I feel like I can see stuff about to happen. Sometimes it hurts me because I gamble sometimes; but, when I do, good things happen.”
The Nuggets led 128-120 with 2:51 left, but the Pelicans closed to 130-128 with 51 seconds left, when Anthony Davis scored on a lob from Cousins. After Denver went up 131-128, Cousins nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game at 131 with 30.5 seconds left.
Davis led all scorers with 41 points, and Cousins added 30 points and 14 rebounds in a losing cause.
“There were a lot of good things,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said. “I think we can see that DeMarcus and AD can coexist and be fine together. I think we’ve got to do a better job of executing down the stretch. We can’t have the crucial turnovers.”
Holiday took the blame for the plays at the end.
“Obviously, I hate to make those type of decisions and mistakes in such tight quarters, but I have great teammates,” Holiday said. “They told me to keep my head up. Obviously, some of the best players have done it in similar situations and they told me that wasn’t the reason we lost.”
The Pelicans scored a season-high 75 first-half point en route to a 75-69 lead. Davis poured in 25 points on 12-of-19 shooting, and his final three baskets of the half came on high-flying dunks at the end of alley-oop assists.
NOTES: The Pelicans played their final home game of the season and finished 21-20. “It’s been a roller coaster,” coach Alvin Gentry said. “Obviously, adding DeMarcus (Cousins) to the mix was an adjustment, but I think everyone can see that those two guys (Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins) can coexist and be very effective. We’ve just got to find a way to make the whole thing come together.” … Gentry praised the work of lead defensive assistant Darren Erman. “We went from being in the bottom 10 (in NBA defense) to we’re in the top 10 now,” he said. … Gentry believes Davis has earned All-NBA team recognition. “I don’t think anybody has played to the level he has consistently, night in and night out,” Gentry said. “The other great thing about it is he’s going to play over 70 games this year and, for him, that’s quite an accomplishment, because he’s had some struggles injury-wise.” … Denver coach Michael Malone said he believes the Davis-Cousins tandem will be a force next year. “DeMarcus Cousins is shooting 50 percent from three in the last five games, so they have an inside-outside attack,” Malone said.