Depth-challenged Nuggets face tall task vs. Pelicans

Guarding DeMarcus Cousins is a difficult task on its own, but when teams have to deal with Anthony Davis too, the job becomes close to impossible.

The two New Orleans big men are dominant individually, and with both on the floor, teams usually have to pick their poison. It helps to be at full strength when playing the Pelicans, but the Denver Nuggets don’t have that luxury when they host New Orleans on Friday night.

Denver (15-13) is expected to get center Nikola Jokic back after he missed seven games with a sprained left ankle, but big man Paul Millsap is not playing. That means the Nuggets will have to figure out a way to beat the Pelicans (15-14) while short-handed in the frontcourt.

That list of injuries grew in the Nuggets’ 124-118 loss in Boston on Wednesday night, which wrapped up a 2-4 road trip. Will Barton, who has emerged as Denver’s leading scorer in Jokic’s absence, missed Wednesday’s game with a hip injury suffered in Detroit on Tuesday and is questionable for Friday night. The Nuggets didn’t practice Thursday after playing a back-to-back set so Barton’s status won’t be known until Friday morning at the earliest.

Denver gave the best team in the Eastern Conference a tough game despite the absence of three key players, something that coach Michael Malone feels the team can build on after a lackluster start to the road trip.

“There are no moral victories in this business, but I like the fact that we’re competing,” Malone told The Denver Post after Wednesday’s game. “I like the fact that we’re giving ourselves a chance to win against really good teams while we’re undermanned. This is only going to make us stronger down the stretch.”

Facing the Pelicans is a tough task coming off an extended road trip and playing for the third time in four nights. One of those losses on the road came in New Orleans, when Cousins went for 40 points and 22 rebounds. Denver’s defense was lacking in that 123-114 Pelicans win on Dec. 6. New Orleans shot 53.5 percent and dominated despite Davis not playing.

He has since returned and put up strong numbers in New Orleans’ win over Milwaukee on Wednesday with 25 points and 10 rebounds. Cousins, who finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds, said the win was more important than his 10th double-double of the season.

“It’s about wins,” Cousins, who also had seven assists, told the Times-Picayune after the game. “The thing I appreciate about this team is that we play for each other, it’s about the win at the end of the night — it’s not about numbers. I think everyone in this locker room at one point in their career have gotten numbers. Right now, it’s about winning. We’re trying to take that next step as a team.”

The Pelicans and Nuggets have split their two games this season, with Denver scoring 146 points on Nov. 18 to set an NBA high for the season at the time. With the Western Conference bunched up — Denver is fifth and New Orleans seventh in the standings — this is a big game for both teams despite the calendar not flipping to 2018 yet.

The Nuggets are trying to stay relevant until they get healthy, and getting Jokic back is a good sign. If he plays, his minutes would be limited, but with him Denver is a different team.

Jokic was moving well in warmups before the Boston game but Malone wanted to be cautious and hold him out.

“I didn’t think he was ready,” Malone told The Denver Post. “(The medical staff) might say he’s ready. But for myself and talking with him, it’s not just, ‘Is the ankle ready?’ It’s, ‘Is his head ready?’ I didn’t think he was ready to play. I wanted to protect him, so I made that decision.”