The Denver Nuggets started out hot in their Tuesday night game against the Dallas Mavericks, and they were up 15-5 when Mavericks’ coach Rick Carlisle had to call a timeout. Paul Millsap had started the game 4-of-5 shooting, and the offense was getting contributions from everywhere. After that timeout though, things started to go off the rails for Denver.

Their defense, specifically on 3-point shots, started to fade, and it didn’t take long for Dallas to get back into the game. After being down by as many as 11, Dallas came storming back with a flurry of 3-point makes. Denver’s defense just wasn’t able to hold up on the shooters like they did during the first few games, and it cost them their lead.

Nikola Jokic was able to get some offense going during the first half, but he still isn’t playing up to the MVP-caliber levels that we’ve come to expect from him. He’s looked rather passive and tired for the majority of the minutes that he’s on the floor, but this team needs him to be assertive and get to the basket like he did on this transition bucket.

By the end of the first quarter, the Mavericks had trimmed the lead all the way down to just one before Will Barton nailed a three point shot to put Denver up by four heading into the second quarter. The offense has still been struggling to nail 3-point shots, and it’s putting strain on their defense with quicker possessions that wear them out over the course of a game.

In the second quarter, for the second-straight night, the Nuggets’ bench was able to go on a run that extended the team’s lead. They got the lead up to nine before Dallas’ bench stopped the bleeding and started storming back. Dallas went on a 12-1 run to take their first lead since they opened the game 1-0. Monte Morris showed off some flash and sizzle on his way to the basket as well.

Dallas’ bench outworked the Nuggets in the second quarter, and that’s why the team was only down by one point heading into the half. Head coach Michael Malone has been going with a long break for his starters at the end of the first quarter into the beginning of the second quarter, and, if the bench struggles during those minutes, he’s not been stopping the bleeding.

In the third quarter, we didn’t see a ton of crisp offense from either team. It was nearly two full minutes before the first points were scored, and that came on a Barton free throw. Neither side could really get anything going in the quarter, and, while Denver won the third by four points, they still had just a five-point lead heading into the fourth quarter with their bench in the game.

In the final period of play, it was a gradual meltdown for the Nuggets. They gave up an early 3-point shot to Tim Hardaway Jr. that cut the lead to two points before Dallas was able to ride their bench to a lead that they would never give up. Denver made some splash plays down the stretch from Millsap, but they couldn’t ever get anything rolling enough to get back in front.

While the 3-point shooting of the Mavericks’ was decent and timely in terms of when they made their shots, they only made two more than Denver while taking five more attempts. This game ultimately came down to the free throw category. Of the 10 players that suited up for Denver on the night, seven of them finished with three or more fouls. Dallas had just three such players.

The Mavericks went to the free throw line a lot, and they finished the game an inefficient 14-of-24. However, in terms of volume they nearly doubled Denver who shot 9-for-13 on the night from the charity stripe. Whether Denver was being lazy or Dallas was just outstanding at drawing fouls, the additional five makes that Dallas got were enough to put them over the top.

The Nuggets bench hasn’t been able to sustain success this year, and, even when they go on these runs, they’ve given up long runs to undo that work. Whether Malone needs to stagger them more with starters as the season goes on remains to be seen. The team is still 3-1, so they have plenty of time to figure out the rotation. In a game they kept the Mavericks’ two big stars, Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, to just 7-of-26 shooting and just 22 total points, you’d like Denver to come away from that with a win.

Denver Final Stat Leaders

Points: Paul Millsap – 23

Rebounds: Will Barton – 11

Assists: Nikola Jokic – 10