DENVER — Usually known for his outside shooting, Canadian Jamal Murray took it to the rim for one high-soaring dunk after another.
"I can do that all the time," the rookie insisted. "But I just shoot a lot."
By any means necessary, especially in such an important game. Murray of Kitchener, Ont., scored a career-high 30 points and the Denver Nuggets kept their post-season hopes afloat by beating the New Orleans Pelicans 122-106 on Friday night.
The first-round pick out of Kentucky hit 10 of 14 shots from the field — he was a little agitated over going 2 of 6 from 3-point range — and all eight of his free throw attempts. What's more, he had a stretch in the fourth quarter where he scored eight straight points for the Nuggets.
"He's not afraid of the moment. He's not afraid of the opportunity," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said of Murray. "He goes out there and plays ... with that swagger. You love to see it."
Nikola Jokic added 23 points and 12 rebounds to help the Nuggets pull within a game of Portland for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West with three games remaining. The Blazers own the tiebreaker.
"I feel very optimistic," Malone said. "It's funny, we lose a game in Charlotte (on March 31) and read things and everybody is ready to say we're done. We're not done. We don't listen to that noise. That's all a distraction."
New Orleans' Anthony Davis scored 25 points in nearly 24 minutes on a night when fellow big man DeMarcus Cousins sat out with tendinitis in his right Achilles. The Pelicans were eliminated from playoff contention Tuesday in a home loss to the Nuggets.
"They were getting a lot of easy shots at the rim, layups and dunks," said Davis, whose knee was a little sore after the game. "We've got to do a better job defensively."
There was a wacky play early in the third quarter that actually shook the Nuggets out of their doldrums. Kenneth Faried, falling out of bounds after catching a long pass, somehow threw it off the bottom of the backboard, then re-established himself on the floor in order to grab the ball. He drove in for a short jumper and drew a foul — he missed the free throw — as the Pelicans looked bewildered.
That play ignited the Nuggets, who outscored the Pelicans 41-24 in the third quarter to cruise to their third win in four games to remain in the playoff chase.
"I don't even know if it was legal, to be honest with you," Malone said. "It was a weird play. But Kenneth's a guy that's made a name for himself at this level because of his effort, his running and his motor."
Pelicans: C Omer Asik wasn't with the team because of an illness. ... G E'Twaun Moore suffered a sprained ankle in the third quarter. He had 10 points. ... Jordan Crawford had 20 off the bench.
Nuggets: G Jameer Nelson (strained calf) and Will Barton (sore left foot) didn't play. ... Wilson Chandler suited up despite missing morning practice with a migraine. He had seven points. ... Gary Harris contributed a career-best nine of Denver's 31 assists to go along with 20 points. ... Murray's previous high was 24 against Chicago on Nov. 22.
FUTURE IS BRIGHT
Harris, Murray and Jokic combined for 73 of Denver's 122 points.
"To see those guys play at such a high level in meaningful games, that gets us as an organization excited," Malone said.
Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry compared Jokic's game to that of a young Tim Duncan.
"I'll probably get a bunch of calls, 'How can you compare him to Tim Duncan?'" Gentry said. "But he's a very smart player with very good footwork."
DON'T GO THERE
Asked if it was easier to run a fast-paced offence with Cousins not on the floor, Gentry turned defensive.
"When a guy is averaging 27 (points) and (11 rebounds), to insinuate you're a better team when he's not on the floor, doesn't make a lot of sense to me," Gentry said. "We can play up-tempo with him. We've done that with him."
Pelicans: Stop No. 2 on their four-game road swing to end the season is Saturday in Golden State.
Nuggets: Home finale Sunday against Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City.
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Pat Graham, The Associated Press