Good, bad, ugly: Nuggets squeak by Dallas behind Millsap’s big day

Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap (4) celebrates with forward Torrey Craig (3) after a timeout called by the Charlotte Hornets at the Pepsi Center.
Jan 5, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets forward Paul Millsap (4) celebrates with forward Torrey Craig (3) after a timeout called by the Charlotte Hornets at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets are in an interesting spot after going through a rough patch by losing four of five games before beating the Minnesota Timberwolves 133-107. Their next test was on Thursday evening against the Dallas Mavericks who’s season has gone into a spiral thanks to a six-game losing streak.

Denver came away with a narrow victory over the Mavericks behind Nikola Jokic’s buzzer-beating shot. With that, I give you the good, bad and ugly.

Good – Millsap’s first half

The Nuggets were down by as many as nine points early in the game. The Mavericks were getting everything that they wanted; shots from beyond the arc, good looks at the rim and they also got out on the break and finished to give themselves a 29-26 first-quarter lead over Denver, but there was a bright spot for the Nuggets that kept hope alive — Paul Millsap.

Millsap kept the Nuggets within striking distance with his play in the first quarter. He led with 12 points at the end of the first frame and upped that play in the second quarter as well as he finished with 20 first-half points.

Millsap is known for his work on the defensive end, but his role has shifted in the last few games as the Nuggets get closer to playoff mode. It is a great sign for the team to have their veteran leader get into a zone when it matters most.

“Ever since the break ended, I have seen just a different Paul Millsap,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said. “Paul is stepping up at the right time and leading by example on the court which is great to see.”

Yes, it was Jokic who got the headlines for hitting the game-winning shot with the buzzer expiring, but it was Millsap who bailed out the Nuggets when they were at their worst. He finished the game with a season-high 33 points and eight rebounds.

Without much offensive production from others early on, Millsap carried the scoring load and still managed to bring it on the defensive end as well. He looks as if he is now coming into his own. He looks more confident offensively and is still the defensive anchor that impacts the game in multiple ways.

Playoff Millsap is almost activated and there is not a better time than now for him to be ready to make his move. Millsap was the hero in this game and, if it were not for his play, Denver would not have won.

Bad – Fatigued Jokic

For as dominant and gifted of an offensive player that Jokic is, he goes through spurts where he just does not look to score the basketball and that was in full effect in Thursday’s game.

Jokic went into the halftime intermission with two points and both of those came on free throws. He turned shots down, he was passive on offense and was not his aggressive self.

A big part of that seems to be fatigue.

“Nikola is tired, man,” Malone said after the game. “He has been carrying this team all season. For us to be where we are — second in the West, a game behind Golden State; whatever it is — Nikola is an MVP candidate in my opinion and he is wearing the weight of that in terms of the games and us going to him and the mental fatigue as well.”

When Jokic has these type of games, it changes the overall dynamic of the Nuggets. First, the offense gets a bit stagnant. They do not seem to be playing with the same flare and confidence which leads to a dip in production. Luckily for Denver, Millsap was able to pick up the slack until Jokic returned to his usual self for the final quarter where he finished with nine of his 11 points on the night.

Malone understands that Jokic is experiencing fatigue and said that Denver will be smart about how they use their All-Star big down the stretch. Maybe that load management tag that we have seen around the league will be used on Jokic for a game or two as the Nuggets close out the season.

Ugly – Relying on the fourth quarter

For three quarters, the Mavericks looked as if they were the better team, but something changed in the fourth quarter as Denver flipped a switch and came alive.

That is a phrase that has become a bit too common. The Nuggets have become the best defensive team in the league in the fourth quarter and against a struggling Mavericks team, it was the defense that pulled off an improbable win yet again as they held Dallas to only 10 fourth-quarter points.

“That’s something that we have done at a high level all year long,” Malone explained. “Our fourth quarter defensive rating and is almost tops in the NBA so that is important when you can trust your defense down the stretch in big games and big moments.”

It has worked all season long and the Nuggets are in the driver’s seat to take on the second seed in the Western Conference heading into the playoffs, but once they are there – then what?

Denver has to get out of playing mediocre basketball and relying on big fourth quarters to turn things around. Execution and putting it together for all four quarters will be pivotal for Denver in determining how far they go in the playoffs.