Denver’s defense falls flat as Mavs snap Nuggets’ winning streak at five
Jamal Murray slumped his shoulders, Nikola Jokic barked in frustration and Michael Malone stared holes into the roof of Ball Arena.
Overall, it was that kind of performance Saturday night against the Dallas Mavericks, who snapped Denver’s five-game winning streak with an emphatic 116-103 win. The loss, following Friday’s dramatic win in Memphis, dropped the Nuggets to 22-16 on the season ahead of Monday’s tilt vs. Indiana.
“We had way too many game-plan discipline mistakes, not in the proper coverage, not communicating,” Malone said. “… Transition, half-court, pick-and-roll, catch-and-shoot, paint, rebounding, you name it.”
Jokic finished two rebounds shy of his 10th triple-double of the season, pouring in 26 points and dealing 11 assists in the loss. Until a dagger 3-pointer from Mavs sniper Kristaps Porzingis, Jokic and the Nuggets kept fighting.
Michael Porter Jr. dropped 17 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter as his 3-point shooting gave the Nuggets some fleeting hope of a comeback. But under a barrage of 18 Dallas 3-pointers, the Nuggets couldn’t maintain the offensive pace. Porzingis had a team-high 25, while Luka Doncic conducted the offense with 21 points and 12 assists.
“Went up 10-0 and then we let our defense relax,” Porter said. “They were getting offensive rebounds and they started playing harder than us.”
For the second consecutive game, Murray couldn’t find his offensive rhythm. He managed just 10 points on 4-for-13 shooting, which inevitably passed the scoring burden elsewhere. Will Barton added 23 points on 8-of-17 from the field.
“I’m on him,” Barton said of Murray. “I try to stay on him about shooting more and being even more aggressive. … We need him to always be a threat.”
Defensively, the Nuggets weren’t as locked in as they’d been during their win streak. Dallas outrebounded the Nuggets 49-41.
“When we don’t rebound, we don’t win games, point blank,” Malone said.
There was no better indication of Denver’s mounting frustration than when Jokic forced a mismatch in the post midway through the third quarter, only to see an errant entry pass turn into a 3-pointer on the other end. The triple was one of nine the Mavericks drilled in the third quarter alone to build a 93-73 lead heading into the fourth.
The defensive breakdowns were numerous, and no one was absolved of responsibility. Not even the added boost Denver got from JaMychal Green’s return helped.
For the majority of the game, Denver’s defense was out of sorts.
Before the game, Malone was reflective on the offensive juggernaut his team had become behind their two engines, Jokic and Murray.
“The options are limitless,” Malone said. “I think Nikola Jokic can be used in every manner on the court. … Most five men are not used to guarding another center that is used in the number of ways that Nikola is. He loves it.
“… Both he and Jamal are really interchangeable in every two-man action,” he said.
Malone rattled off every offensive action he could think of – pick-and-roll, catch-and-shoot, post-up – to illustrate his point. It was just one more indication of the magnitude of Jokic’s special season.
Denver’s MVP candidate entered Saturday’s back-to-back with the second-most minutes in the NBA. Malone said that every time the two broached the subject of scaling back his minutes, Jokic wouldn’t discuss it.
“Even when I’ve had conversations about trying to sit him and limit his minutes, Nikola never wants to hear it,” Malone said. “He doesn’t want to disappoint the Serbian people. Serbians are tough, and he doesn’t want to have that label of not being a warrior, which he has been for us.”
The Nuggets wrote a first half to forget Saturday night. They took away nothing defensively as the Mavs found easy driving lanes to the hoop and later punished the Nuggets from the perimeter. As a result, Dallas took a 62-51 lead going into break after shooting over 58% from the field.
That the Nuggets’ offense struggled wasn’t a surprise. Porter picked up three fouls in just five minutes, and Murray continued his cold start coming out of the break. He was just 1-of-6 shooting in the first half, his frustration mounting with his each near-make.
Only Jokic and Barton found any semblance of success. Barton had a game-high 17 points on 14 shots while Jokic racked up 16 points and seven assists over the first two quarters. Four of his early dimes led directly to 3-pointers.