The Denver Nuggets continue to take on all comers. After winning three in a row against the Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder and Toronto Raptors, the Nuggets welcomed in leading rookie of the year candidate Luka Doncic and the upstart Dallas Mavericks. Dallas found the same result as all of those other aforementioned teams, a decent fight but ultimately not enough to overcome a Denver team that is showing the league it takes a full forty-eight minute effort to steal a victory away from them. Nikola Jokic had a monster game and the Nuggets wrap up their four game homestand with four wins.
The Nuggets struggled on offense to start the game, scoring just five points in the first three minutes. They were focusing on getting the ball to their bigs, which seemed like the right way to go and eventually Jokic started to get some momentum against DeAndre Jordan. The Mavericks meanwhile were getting production from the corners, Harrison Barnes made it difficult for the Nuggets twin towers lineup with his ability to stretch the floor. The Nuggets were within one at the eight minute mark when Rodney Mott called a questionable tech on Jamal Murray for hanging on the rim. Denver’s momentum wouldn’t be stopped though and shortly thereafter Torrey Craig finished a fast break with an alley-oop slam to get Denver the lead and force a Mavericks timeout. Dallas came out of the TO shooting well, in particular Doncic, and they stormed back to take the lead. Jordan checked out just past the midway point of the quarter which made the Nuggets shift their focus fully to Jokic on offense, initiating almost every possession with him in the post. That worked very well, either Joker overpowered Dwight Powell in the post or he kicked to an open shooter when the double team came. Despite the Nuggets success, the Mavericks continued to have timely shooting from the three point line which prevented Denver from creating a lead. As had been the case so many time against Dallas, J. J. Barea made a difference off the bench but Trey Lyles was shooting well himself and got the Nuggets a one point lead at the end of the first.
Lyles picked right up where he left off at the end of the first knocking down a three and then getting a nice post move to go. Plumlee also was active on the offensive end and the Nuggets started to build a lead. Once again though the Mavericks got a timely three, this time from none other than Dirk Nowitzki, which kept the Nuggets from pulling away. The Nuggets bench seemed to take their foot off the gas a bit and lost some of their energy. That made them a step slow on defense and before the quarter was even half over the Nuggets were already in the penalty from committing so many reach fouls. Luckily the Mavericks missed some golden opportunities near the rim to keep from overtaking Denver but the game remained close. Malik Beasley was providing the punch for Denver on offense as the quarter passed the halfway point. Meanwhile, Murray was doing great at distributing and already had a career high 11 assists. Dallas continued to kill the Nuggets from the three point line, Barnes in particular was getting his shots to fall and he led a run to push the Mavericks back in front. Denver took a timeout and regrouped. They came back out firing to claw back. Just like the first quarter, the second was a high scoring affair with neither team being able to take control of the contest. Both teams kept the pace up as the half closed and Jokic dominated down low. Behind his twenty-two first half points the Nuggets gained a 74-69 lead at the half.
Barnes started off the second half with another three and the Nuggets turned it over to get the Mavericks right back in it. Jokic picked up to quick fouls on some questionable calls, Michael Malone picked up a technical foul arguing the calls but despite Joker picking up his fourth foul very early on in the quarter Malone kept him in the game. Immediately after, Torrey Craig picked up his fourth foul and the Nuggets were flirting with the penalty early in the quarter once again. Dallas continued to shoot well from the three point line while the Nuggets were piecing together offense through a team effort. Wesley Matthews was doing the majority of the damage for Dallas’ side. Denver’s offense wouldn’t relent though and after Jokic threw an outlet pass to Plumlee who found Beasley for the fast break finish Dallas took a timeout trailing by five once again. The Mavs came out of the timeout strong with a quick 6-0 run behind Doncic who was taking advantage of Beasley in the post. The Nuggets guards were trying to keep up but Doncic found his rhythm and was growing Dallas’ lead. The Mavericks were also enjoying an ever widening gap in team free throw attempts. Juancho Hernangomez was aggressive late in the third, when he didn’t get his shot to fall he followed it up with an offensive board which earned the Nuggets some well deserved free throws. That led a 10-0 run to get the Nuggets back the lead and force a timeout. The break didn’t help the Mavs though, Jokic asserted himself to close out the quarter, scoring six of the last eight and the Nuggets led by ten after three.
Dorian Finney-Smith finally got a bucket for the Mavs as the quarter started but both offenses sputtered to start the final frame. The defense hadn’t exactly tightened up but both sides just seemed to go cold from the floor. Doncic finally broke the drought with a nice move to the basket which was followed by a big transition dunk from Jordan. Just like that, Dallas was once again right back in it. Denver was really struggling from the field and it looked like the Mavericks were about to get the lead back when Matthews fouled Lyles and also got a technical foul for arguing the call. Denver cashed in all three free throws on the sequence to move the lead back to six. They waited until about seven minutes left in the game, but both teams finally appeared ready to play defense (Barnes also went cold from the corner). The game was certainly headed towards a close finish. After a timeout just under the seven minute mark Jordan was called for a moving screen which was his sixth foul. That gave the Nuggets even more momentum which led to a nice run where Jokic found Monte Morris for a wide open three and then Murray rejected Matthews and went coast to coast forcing Rick Carlisle to take another timeout. That slowed the Nuggets offense and the Mavericks started chipping away at the lead but time was becoming a factor. Barnes was giving Dallas a last gap effort but Morris had the answer more than once on the other end. Murray picked a great time to hit his first three and it was a dagger with just over a minute to go and put the Nuggets back up by ten. Dallas ultimately runs out of time and the Nuggets win their fourth in a row.
Key matchup: Nikola Jokic vs DeAndre Jordan
Jokic was phenomenal tonight. With so much of Denver’s offense currently wearing suits on the bench, Joker has fully stepped into the role of leader on the court and is carrying the Nuggets right now. He was relentless in the post whether or not Jordan was in and that led to a huge night scoring and on the boards. Jordan didn’t have as big of a night statistically but he still was effective for Dallas. He was the only person who could even attempt to slow down Nikola and he remained a presence on the boards. When he fouled out of the game it was pretty much the beginning of the end for the Mavericks. Jordan is obviously no longer in his prime and he’s been fairly criticized for his defensive effort this season but tonight he showed how he still can have a big effect on the game.
Key thing I noticed: Luka Doncic is really good
The Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks made a mistake. Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Trae Young all may be very good players but Doncic is special. He showed his full arsenal in the game tonight. He had a double-double with a career high in assists as he made plays for others with his passing and effectively mixed his outside game as well as his ability to get to the rim to put up a nice night scoring after a slow start. Its not that Luka did anything over the top tonight but you got to see all of his tools including how smart of a player he is. He rarely makes a mistake and he so good at so many things that he has counter move on top of counter move for anything the opposition brings. No doubt, this is a guy the Nuggets are going to have to deal with in the Western Conference for a long time to come.
Closing thought: This team is really good
This homestand was as impressive as they come. That’s four teams who are going to be in or just on the outside looking in on the playoffs and the Nuggets beat them all. The way they won was impressive as well. There wasn’t any major blowouts or anything like that but more than once the Nuggets ran into a hiccup somewhere early in a game and then found a way to storm back in the second half. They used a mixture of players having clutch moments and in the middle of it all was Jokic dominating. Nikola’s officially an MVP candidate and I think we’ve come to the point where its fair to start thinking about just how deep this team can go in the playoffs. I don’t think there’s any doubt they are going to be there and there’s a good chance they could go very far once they are there.