The Denver Nuggets outlasted a ferocious fourth quarter charge by the Dallas Mavericks to escape with a 105-102 victory. The Nuggets tried to give the game away late as Dallas outscored them 33-19 in the final frame, but the lead Denver had built was just big enough to ensure victory. Nikola Jokic was finally deployed in the paint without Mason Plumlee beside him and responded with 29 points, 18 rebounds and 7 assists, but also had to be pulled late in the game as Denver’s interior presence and drive defense were shredded throughout the fourth.

Gary Harris was masterful with 25 points, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block, and Will Barton added 22 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists, but what was a cakewalk through three quarters turned into a dogfight at the end. Dennis Smith Jr. was dominant for Dallas in the fourth, finishing with 25 points and 5 assists. Harrison Barnes added 17 points and Devin Harris had 16, but in the end it wasn’t quite enough for the Mavericks.

The Nuggets had a turnover on their first possession as Jokic’s bounce pass on a cut hit Murray in the face.  Wilson Chandler missed a spinning and Jokic missed a pull-up jumper while the Mavericks started 3-for-4. With 2 minutes gone, Jokic blew by Dirk and finished a 3-point play for Denver’s first points. The Mavs were the more aggressive team for the first few minutes as Will Barton got two early fouls and Jokic was careless with the ball which let Dallas get going on fast breaks. but the Nuggets stayed close thanks to 17 points from Jokic and Gary Harris that made it 18-17 Dallas with 5 minutes to go in the quarter. Fallas started 9 of 14 from the field, though, and a Wes Matthews step-in three extended the Dallas lead to 4. 

After both Jokic and Harris got into double figures, the hack-a-shack started on Mason Plumlee as soon as he came in the game.  He made 1-of-2 in his first trip to the line to become Denver’s third scoring player. Will Barton finished at the rim to tie it at 25, then drove for another bucket and sank a three at the buzzer for Denver’s first lead at 30-27.

Malik Beasley started the second quarter with a three, and Barton’s offense over Dallas’s smaller guards took Denver out to a 40-31 lead as Dallas went cold from the field. Torrey Craig got into early foul trouble with 3 in his first 6 minutes, though, and the Mavericks set better screens to get their shooters open. Barton’s 12th point and Harris’s layup on a Denver steal took the lead back to 9 at 45-36 with 7 minutes left in the half. Chandler hit a tough shot in the lane to make it 11, and Jokic came back in for another bucket, then hit this insanely-great pass to Chandler:

The refs blew a quick whistle in the second quarter and Jokic got back to the line because of it just as Dallas was cutting the lead down to three buckets.  Jokic was everywhere, grabbing rebounds, tipping in shots and orchestrating the offense.  Even his missed three was spectacular as Torrey Craig came in for the rebound-and-score above the rim.  The Jokic tip-in of his own misses at the buzzer gave him 20 points at the half and Denver a 61-48 lead.

Jamal Murray finally got out in open space and got a transition layup, but missed a step-back to go one-of-five from the field early. Gary Harris had a Jokic-assisted steal and dunk blocked, Barton got a smooth layup, and Harris had his second block of the game. Jokic tipped in a Harris miss for a 67-48 lead with just two minutes gone in the third quarter, and Chandler’s defensive pressure created another steal. Murray finally hit a three to push the lead past 20, but then Denver scuffled for a couple of minutes on offense as Dallas got their pressure up and cut the lead back down to 15 at 70-55. Harris and Harrison Barnes traded threes, but a Barton back-cut off a Jokic assist and then Harris’s steal and layup put the lead back to 20 halfway through the quarter.

A give-and-go between Jokic and Craig kept the lead stretched out, and Chandler got in the scrappy act by getting on the floor to fight for a rebound, then fighting through a bunch of contact for a paint bucket as the refs swallowed their whistles for several minutes. Jokic got tackled to the ground but got to the line, but Devin Harris made his third three of the game trying to keep Dallas in it. Torrey Craig got a steal to get to the line as Jokic finally sat down with a minute to go. The Nuggets stayed scrappy though, despite the contact, and kept the lead at 86-69 Denver after three.

Devin Harris hit another three, then made a transition layup for a quick 5-0 run for Dallas to start the fourth. The Mavericks cut the lead to 12 before a Barton-to-Plumlee dunk, but Dallas dunked right back as Denver’s bench struggled to keep the scoring efficiency up. Jamal Murray airballed a shot at the buzzer as Denver kept getting pushed out of their preferred spots by the Mavs, while Dallas attacked the paint without Jokic in. Murray got in the paint and make a bucket for Denver’s 50th point in the paint, then Harris got his third steal of the night as the Nuggets tried to right the ship. Harris laid the ball in off transition and a Barton block on the other end to push the lead back to 15.

Barton’s willingness to drive through traffic created more opportunities for Denver, but he also got trapped and threw it away on a play that turned into a Yogi Ferrell three. Jokic made another basket in the paint, then hit a 15-footer after Ferrell got an offensive foul. Barton’ steal-and-slam took the lead back to 16, but the Nuggets couldn’t keep Dallas from chucking threes. Ferrell got free throws and Mejri dunked a rebound over Jokic to cut the lead to 10 with three minutes to go as the Nuggets missed shots and turned the ball over. A turnover and Dennis Smith Jr. layup made it an 8 point deficit at 99-91. Jokic hit a 15 footer but Smith Jr. took a one-handed dunk uncontested through the paint. Another bucket from Dallas’s rookie point guard after a Barton turnover cut it to six. The Nuggets had no willingness to attack the bucket while Dallas did it with impunity with five straight made layups.

A Jokic-to-Barton assist helped Denver with breathing room, but a cheap screening foul on Jokic was followed by a reversed hustle steal between Jokic and Murray that left Dallas with the ball down 6 with 50.8 seconds left. Dennis Smith Jr. made yet another layup past a hapless Jokic and Denver missed its second game-sealing three. Denver pulled Jokic down the stretch and switched everything on the next play and got the steal. Somehow Smith Jr. got another layup, but Dallas was not able to foul the Nuggets until under 2 seconds to go. Gary Harris made his free throws to get a three-point lead, Dallas blew its last-second heave from the baseline, and the Nuggets escaped 105-102.

Final Thoughts

Aggressive Jokic is the right Jokic, but getting him in the paint is best for everyone. Coach Malone separated Jokic and Mason Plumlee, and the Nuggets responded early with a pair of 30-point quarters and a 20/11 double-double at halftime for Denver’s Serbian star. He would have had more assists as well, except Dallas resorted to fouling rather than giving up the easy buckets.

The Nuggets demolished Dallas in rebounds also, which is partly an artifact of Dallas not being a great rebounding team but also a consequence of getting Jokic and his rebounding touch back near the basket instead of floating around the three-point line. Clearing out the paint for Jokic to do his work was a very successful plan for Denver against Dallas’s limited front court, and hopefully they continue with the plan even against tougher paint lineups. Of course, if they don’t fix their defensive switching issues that let a layup line form for Dallas in the fourth quarter that might not matter.

Gary Harris is so legit. He had blocks and steals in this game to go with his scoring prowess at all levels of the court. He made his free throws and his threes. Harris is rarely an initiator but his aggression level on offense has been climbing all year without affecting his efficiency, which is very impressive. Gary was the floor leader for the bench tonight, steadying the ship in that fourth quarter when Dallas’s pressure bothered many other players.

Will Barton certainly did his part with 22 points and 6 assists (but also caused Denver some consternation with untimely turnovers and some sticky offense late). When looking to the future, though, Denver needs Harris to step up like this all the time, and so far this calendar year he’s been willing and able. It would have been nice if any guard could have figured out screen positioning and stopped Dennis Smith Jr. at the end, but guard defense is still a work in progress for Denver, and Harris is the best of the bunch in that regard as well.

Denver struggles with aggression on offense and defense. Denver doesn’t like to be pressured, and they struggle to pressure other teams late on the defensive end. When Denver settles late but allows other aggressive teams to do anything they want it’s a recipe for disaster. They got lucky in this game, but a bench that only scored 16 points got rocked by the intensity of the Mavericks to start the quarter and Denver’s starters weren’t able to stem that tide.

This is a team of extreme runs and emotion, for better or worse, as most young teams are, but it leaves them vulnerable to tough coaching and rugged play. Malone was not able to use a late review timeout to stem the tide either, and learning to stop those runs by the opponent and not let a 20 point lead erode to single digits and then single buckets is an important skill for everyone on this team. I’d rather they learn those film lessons from a win instead of a loss, though, and tonight they got the much-needed win.