The Dallas Mavericks came into Denver and stole a game from the Nuggets despite being out-rebounded and out-shot by the home team. Steal may be the wrong term, as Denver practically gift-wrapped this game with an egregious 21-to-3 turnover differential in favor of Dallas which led to 18 more shot attempts by the Mavericks on the evening.
Emmanuel Mudiay had a decent offensive night (4 turnovers aside) with 16 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds, and Will Barton shouldered the scoring burden off the bench with a game-high 23 points and 8 rebounds, but missed box-outs and poor defense by nearly everyone in a Nugget uniform hurt down the stretch, and a combined 6 points and 6 turnovers from Nikola Jokic and D.J. Augustin didn't help.
The game started off on a good note as Faried made his return to the court for the opening tip and eventually notched 9 points and 11 rebounds. There were some nifty passes and good energy from Denver early they got out to an early 9-2 lead, including this sweet bit of paint magic:
Jokic was leading breaks early looking to orchestrate the offense, and even tried to take Dirk Nowitski off the dribble. But some silly turnovers started the choking-offense theme of the night for Denver, who shot fine for much of the night when they weren't throwing the ball to Dallas. Matthews hit a couple of threes for the Mavericks to keep them close and J.J. Barea did what he always does against Denver: ball out. He had 18 points and 11 assists for the game and did for Dallas what Augustin normally does for Denver. Sloppy turnovers, fouls and second-chance points allowed by the bench unit allowed Dallas to take a 28-24 lead into the second, as Denver had 7 turnovers and 8 fouls in the period.
Denver opened the second quarter with the midget guard lineup of D.J. Augustin and Jameer Nelson on the floor together. A Joffrey Lauvergne layup and a Faried dunk made the early noise and tied the game at 28, but Lauvergne was awful on the pick-and-roll with Augustin, netting a couple of terrible turnovers as he forgot he might get the ball back on the roll part of the play on multiple occasions. Those led to easy points and a couple of three pointers by Devin Harris, as well as Faried earning his third foul and having to sit the rest of the half. The Nuggets had a run once Mudiay came back in with Gary Harris cutting the lead to three at the end of a 7-0 run. Neither team could take advantage of misses over the last two minutes of the half, though, and Dallas snuck into halftime still up four, 50-46.
Mudiay sprinted downcourt for a layup to put Denver on the board in the second half, but whatever Malone said about talking care of the ball at halftime fell on deaf ears. A pair of turnovers by Harris hurt and Jokic continued his miserable shooting, but somehow the game was knotted at 57-55 for nearly four minutes anyway as neither team could score at all. Tired legs seemed the norm for both teams - only normal since both were on a back-to-back - but Dallas got a lift late in the third from Justin Anderson, who had some putbacks, a dunk and a three, followed by Barea's three that pushed the lead to 9. Barton's acrobatic 30-footer at the buzzer brought Denver back within six, though, at 72-66 after three.
The Nuggets played tug-of-war with Dallas at the beginning of the fourth, unable to retake the lead and watching it hover around that six-point mark. Desperate threes from Barton and Harris let the Nuggets hang around, but Dallas got another burst of energy from second-year scrub Dwight Powell, who had a career-high 16 points with five buckets in the fourth alone. That fifth bucket put Dallas up 89-79 with just over four minutes to go, and neither Barton nor Mudiay could do enough from the field or the charity stripe to put a significant dent in that lead late as Dallas closed out Denver at the foul line for the final line of 97-88.
- It will be nice to have some veteran talent back next year. Putting the game in the hands of kids who should be making a Final Four run is tough every game, and the Nuggets don't have much of a margin for error these days. If Mudiay is off like he was against the Clippers or Jokic doesn't have it - as he didn't tonight - the Nuggets don't have a lot of spare parts that can pick up the slack. JaKarr Sampson getting last-minute threes instead of Gallo or Chandler does the Nuggets no favors, but there's nothing to be done about it this year. For now the kids have to ride out the bumps and see what they can learn with the responsibility all on their shoulders. It will make them better next year when Denver has that full complement of players back.
- Malone still has some bolt-tightening to do on this squad. Or maybe Tim Connelly does. Young teams tend to be turnover factories and struggle to be cohesive on little things like defensive awareness and boxing out. Those are precisely the things that Malone wants to build his team on: valuing the basketball and playing good enough defense that it will lead to fast-break offense and turnovers. The Nuggets couldn't turn over a flapjack tonight, and coughed the ball up at the mere sight of an opponent's hand. Those are the qualities that Malone will have to mitigate going forward, and Connelly may need to help him with some roster switches. This year it's sorta cute, in a "kids fall down" sort of way. It's gonna be way less cute when Denver is competing for a real playoff spot.
Hopefully this is the Nuggets just getting these kinds of games out of the way now. Purge it all, Denver - it doesn't hurt this year. Unless Dallas passes Houston for the last playoff spot, of course...