The Denver Nuggets entered Thursday night’s nationally televised game with a decided advantage over the visiting Dallas Mavericks. The Mavs were just 6-27 on the road coming in, 1-9 in their last ten games, and they didn’t land in Denver until Thursday morning—shouts to the Bomb Cyclone thing.
This game wasn’t supposed to be close, but it came all the way down to the buzzer, when Nikola Jokic hit a game winning layup to seal a 100-99 win.
Given the circumstances, one might’ve expected the Nuggets to blitz Dallas from the jump, but it was the Mavs that brought the energy to start the game. For Denver, the first quarter didn’t feature the same ball movement and cohesion on the offensive end as it did in the win over the Wolves on Tuesday. The Nuggets did assist on their first six field goals of the game, but the ball wasn’t exactly popping.
Denver’s first eight points all came from the same player, Paul Millsap, who kept the Nuggets afloat with 12 points in the quarter. Nikola Jokic racked up four assists, but he failed to score, and he was hardly engaged on the defensive end. Few Nuggets were as the beleaguered Mavericks put up 29 points on 54 percent from the field without turning the ball over once.
Dallas took a 29-26 lead into the second quarter.
Denver found another gear in the subsequent 12 minutes. A unit of Jamal Murray, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Millsap, and Mason Plumlee altered the flow of momentum by opening the quarter on a 16-8 run before Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle burned a timeout. Millsap was at the center of it all again, scoring six points in that span, while his team assisted on five of their six field goals.
It seemed like the Nuggets were ready to turn a corner and pull away when that unit handed the keys and a small lead over to the starters, but Denver’s best five never got into rhythm. The Jokic passivity that’s frustrated fans in the past reared its head again—the big man never scored and attempted just two field goals in the first half. Dallas closed on a 20-9 run and a dejected starting group sauntered back to the locker room as Denver trailed 57-51.
One not-so-fun subplot of the post-All-Star break for the Nuggets is the fatigue that appears to be setting in for their best player. Jokic has looked, frankly, disinterested at times, and Thursday’s night game might have been his worst of the season in that regard. The big fella didn’t get a third shot attempt up until the six minute mark in the third quarter, a shot he missed, and followed up by nearly air-balling a three. With Jokic in a funk, the starters continued to struggle and Dallas took advantage by unleashing an air-raid. The Mavs took five threes in the first six minutes of the quarter, knocking down four of them.
Neither team was able to get their offense going from there, and the Mavs won a low-scoring quarter 19-18, pushing their lead up to ten as the final quarter began.
The Nuggets entered the fourth in dire need of a spark—something, anything, to wake the crowd up and get themselves back in the game. As they’ve done for much of the year in the final quarter, they found that spark by stepping it up on the defensive end. The Nuggets strung together consecutive stops and engineered a mini-run that was punctuated by a Beasley three from the left corner with 8:30 remaining. That shot cut the lead down to four and the crowd erupted as Carlisle took a timeout.
When the starters checked back in, Jokic looked reborn. He scored six of his 11 points in a matter of minutes, the fifth and sixth ones coming on a turnaround jumper off the glass. That cut the lead to just two—then both offenses went cold.
Ninety scoreless seconds featured five combined missed shots. That streak was broken by Millsap, who tied the game with a turnaround jumper with three minutes remaining, bringing his total up to 33 points on the night.
The rest of the game belonged to Doncic and Jokic, who traded buckets to lift the score to 97-97. Denver was able to force a turnover on the ensuing possession and Jokic was fouled on a shot attempt, but he split the free throws, and Denver held a precarious one point lead.
What followed was the second biggest play of the night, courtesy of the rookie phenom. With just five seconds remaining Doncic drove hard to the rim and threw down a vicious dunk over two Nuggets, despite getting fouled on the play. The rook went to the line with a chance to push Dallas’ lead up to two, but he missed, and Denver used a timeout after Millsap corralled the rebound.
The Nuggets inbounded the ball to Jokic near the top of the key, and the big man never hesitated. He turned the corner, drove right, and chucked up a floating layup over the outstretched arm of his defender.
The Pepsi Center reached new levels of loud as their team stormed the court, a ten-point comeback completed.
The Nuggets will have Friday off before wrapping up their home-stand by hosting the Indiana Pacers on Saturday night. That game tips off at 7pm MT.