The Denver Nuggets have been playing with fire for the majority of their games this season and their current five-game road trip has been more evidence of that fact.
The road trip began with a brutal 26-point loss in Houston on New Years Eve in which the Nuggets were obliterated in the fourth quarter after getting within one possession. Denver then grabbed a statement win in Indiana against the quietly terrific Indiana Pacers before laying an egg in Washington D.C. against the lowly Wizards. Thankfully Denver was able to grab a win against the league-worst Atlanta Hawks, but they did so narrowly and in sloppy fashion.
On Wednesday night, the Nuggets had a chance to win three of their five games on their road trip which would be a victory with all things considered. All they had to do was get past the 23-13 Dallas Mavericks who are led by Most Valuable Player candidate Luka Doncic without two of their starters which is much easier said than done.
Paul Millsap missed another game due to a left knee contusion while Will Barton III was out to attend a funeral for a family member. Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig started in their spots.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Nuggets had beaten the Mavericks 107-106 thanks to Nikola Jokic’s game-winning bucket and with that, I give you the good, bad, and ugly.
Good – Nikola Jokic’s dominant second half
Going into halftime, Nikola Jokic was looking nothing like the player who flirted with 50 points just two nights early. He only had seven points in the first two quarters of the game, but once halftime came and went, he turned on the afterburners in the third quarter and carried the Nuggets home in the fourth.
In the third frame alone, Jokic had 21 points on 8-11 shooting to go with three rebounds and two assists as well as a block and a steal. Jokic scored or assisted on 26 of the 30 total points the Nuggets scored as a team in the third quarter with an assist on to Malik Beasley for a 3-pointer and a dime to Murray for a mid-range jumper. Jokic’s 21 points in the third quarter were a career-high for points in a single quarter.
The Nuggets were in the danger zone heading into the third quarter. They were playing their fifth game of a five-game road trip and fatigue was all but certain to set in, but Jokic put the Nuggets on his back and built the momentum that propelled the Nuggets to their 26th win in 37 tries.
While Jokic did not produce at the same level in the fourth quarter as he did in the third, he still managed to score five points including the game-winning floater with 7.9 seconds remaining to give him 26 points in the second half alone.
By the time the game had ended, Jokic had scored 33 points, grabbed six rebounds, and dished out seven assists in 31 minutes of action while shooting 12-20 from the field and was a team-best 4-6 from three-point range to carry Denver to another win.
Bad – Paul Millsap’s health
Over the past 15 contests, Paul Millsap has missed five games due to a lingering left knee contusion that has kept him out on three separate occasions including Denver’s road battle with the Mavericks.
Millsap will play for a few games, but follow it up with another string of missed games. His lack of availability has massively hurt the Nuggets once-dominant defense while also taking a toll on Millsap’s personal statistics.
Since Millsap missed his first game back on December 14th of last year, the Nuggets defense is second-worst in the league with a 114.6 defensive rating. In the 24 games prior to Millsap’s first missed game due to his knee contusion, the Nuggets had the second-best defense in the league with a defensive rating of 102.6.
That 12 points per 100 possessions is a massive difference. For context, 12 points per 100 possessions is the difference between the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-ranked defense in the league and the 27th-ranked Cleveland Cavaliers defense.
Additionally, Millsap has seen his own numbers fall since his injury. In his 23 games prior to his knee contusion, Millsap was averaging 12.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.2 assists to go with just under one block and steal per game. He shot 47.6% from the field on 9.1 attempts per game and a wild 45.5% on 3-pointers.
Since Millsap’s injury, his impact defensively has taken a big fall as well as his shooting percentages. After shooting so well from three-point range, Millsap has shot just 30% in his last nine games while his field goal percentage fell to just 44.4%.
In his place, Jerami Grant got the start and played well with 15 points, five rebounds, and three blocks in 34 minutes of playing time.
The Nuggets need Millsap at his best to be at their best. If sitting him down for an extended period of time is what it takes to get him healthy, Denver should do that. Having him in and out of the lineup is not helping Millsap or the Nuggets.
Ugly – Denver’s defense continues to slide
Over the 10 games prior to the Nuggets matchup with the Mavericks, Denver had the worst defense in all of basketball with a 116.5 defensive rating and the Nuggets performance in Dallas was more of the same.
The Mavericks easily scored their 106 points while shooting 50.6% from the field and hitting 12 of their 35 shots from three-point distance. They got to the foul line repeatedly with 24 free throw attempts and they also managed to score 46 points in the paint as well as 15 points on fast break opportunities.
While multiple players on the Mavericks hurt Denver, it was MVP candidate Luka Doncic who did the most damage. He finished with 27 points, nine rebounds, and 10 assists. Yes, Doncic had six turnovers, but he constantly sliced up Denver’s defense.
The Nuggets offense has been coming back to life, which is unequivocally a good thing, but the only way that Denver can compete for a title this year is if their defense stays elite while their offense also climbs back into and remains at a top-10 level. Right now, it seems that Denver is only able to sustain a high-level of play on one end of the floor on any given night.
Until that changes, the Nuggets will not be legitimate contenders for the NBA Championship.