The victory all but guaranteed that the Nuggets will finish with a .500 record or better this season, putting them two games away from securing a winning record.
Nikola Jokic lead the Nuggets in scoring with 19 points, tied with Millsap and Plumlee with 13 rebounds, and lead the team in assists with eight, picking up where he left off before the All-Star break to guide his team to a win.
Luka Doncic sat out for the Mavericks, who were lead by Jalen Brunson and his 22 points, but ultimately were done in by the shocking number of players on their roster that are not capable of successfully putting the basketball through the hoop against a league-average defense.
Jamal Murray was blocked on the first shot attempt of the game, but Malik Beasley canned a triple on the next possession to start the scoring. Jalen Brunson initiated the offense with Doncic out, leaving the Mavericks without a scoring option as the primary ballhandler. Dallas went on a 7-0 run that was sparked by a Salah Mejri 3-pointer, a shot attempt that came as a bit of a surprise. The Nuggets took the lead on a Jokic 3-pointer, 18-17, taking advantage of Dwight Powell’s late closeout. Monte Morris and Isaiah Thomas came in as the Nuggets subbed in a three-guard lineup with Gary Harris alongside Jokic and Plumlee. Denver couldn’t stop Dwight Powell, who used his athleticism to beat Jokic to the rim.
Mason Plumlee started the second off with a rim-rattling dunk, cutting the Mavericks lead to three. Thomas knocked in a pull-up triple, his first make on the evening. The Nuggets guard followed that up by committing his third foul, and drawing a technical from his outspoken disagreement with that call. Malone promptly pulled him out, having seen enough. Murray started an amazing play by hustling for a steal, whipping the ball to Barton, who no-looked a bounce pass to Millsap, who spun for a reverse layup. Jokic picked up his third foul on the offensive end, and Malone pulled him back to the bench too. Millsap chipped in a couple more points, and helped the Nuggets claim the lead with about two minutes remaining in the quarter. Denver wound up winning the quarter, 27-21, to take a one point lead into the locker room at halftime.
The Nuggets came out strong in the second half, getting a couple stops and causing Rick Carlisle to call timeout. They continued to force the Mavericks into missed shots and to commit turnovers, stretching their lead to double digits with about six minutes remaining. A Murray runner gave Denver a 13 point lead, and Dallas had to call timeout again. Seeing the ball go through the hoop helped spark a hot streak for Murray, and he knocked in another 3-pointer after a timeout and the Nuggets seemed to have a swagger about them that was missing earlier in the game. Thomas came back in with about two minutes remaining, and after a Nuggets team offensive rebound, made a 3-pointer to put the Nuggets up by 20 points. Plumlee committed a charge, barreling through Mejri, and Trey Burke hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 15. Denver won the quarter 39-23, and had a comfortable lead going into the fourth quarter.
Gary Harris got a couple points in the fourth, getting to the rim for a layup and then swiping the ball from Mejri a few possessions later. Thomas splashed in a triple, talking some trash to Dorian Finney-Smith on the way back down the court, taunting the Mavericks wing into taking a jumper from the corner that he missed. While the multiple guard lineup has defensive issues, when they’re clicking on offense, they’re capable of catapulting up the scoreboard and proving that yes, three is more than two. Jokic and Juancho checked in to get some extra minutes, with the Serbian flicking in a midrange jumper for his fifteenth point in the contest. The refs let things get a little out of control for a stretch, but Jokic took over for a couple possessions and the Nuggets were able to pick up their 40th win of the season.
Three things we noticed
The small-ball lineup means points, points, points. The Nuggets tried out the lineup of Thomas-Morris-Murray-Juancho-Jokic, and they couldn’t stop anyone on defense, but no one could stop them on offense. That’s just too much spacing for teams to try to guard, while on the other end, they made things easy for the other team too. In order for this lineup to work, Juancho needs to be more active forcing ballhandlers to throw passes through the air, giving the guards a chance to steal the ball mid-air, and he needs to attack off the dribble more often. They had plenty of good looks from behind the arc though, with Jokic sucking in the defense’s attention while the guards ran around.
The Nuggets defense was still on break. The Mavericks didn’t exactly roll out the stiffest competition the Nuggets are going to face over the next six weeks. Mejri was launching 3-pointers, Brunson was chucking the ball to the Nuggets guards, and Dallas was able to get a couple uncontested looks at the rim. I’m not sure after watching the game one time if it’s just due to the Nuggets playing so many smaller lineups, or a lack of effort, but they weren’t able to get stops consistently throughout the game.
Is Jokic okay? Then we’re okay. There were a few times during the game where Jokic was frustrated with how the game was called by the referees, and it impacted the way he played a bit. But when he was able to not worry about foul trouble, or got angry after a flagrant missed call, he was dominant. He finished just shy of a triple-double, and was just a few missed layups and drawn fouls away from getting his tenth assist. A reminder — if Jokic is healthy, motivated, and feeling good, it’s going to be a good game for the Nuggets.