Life was always going to be difficult for the Denver Nuggets without Nikola Jokić, Jamal Murray, and Aaron Gordon in the lineup.

On Friday, Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks made life hell for the Nuggets. Dallas won 127-99 in a game that really wasn’t that close. Dončić had a 30-point triple-double by the beginning of the third quarter, Christian Wood put up 28 efficient points off the bench, and the Nuggets couldn’t cross the century mark on the other end. It was an absolute beatdown, one that many could see coming from a mile away.

Michael Porter Jr. and Bones Hyland led the way for the Nuggets in shot attempts, but they combined for just 27 points on 31 field goal attempts. The Nuggets struggled to find gaps in a stout Mavericks defense, and the few shots that were open, the Nuggets bricked more often than not. Bruce Brown and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each had good games, but the Nuggets just didn’t have enough on either end to match up with the Mavericks.

Here are my primary takeaways from tonight’s loss in Dallas:

Luka hunts every mismatch

It’s clear that Luka Dončić is one of the best players in the world today. He might be the leading candidate for most valuable player at this early stage. The way he processes the game and maximizes every single bit of space, time, and resource at his disposal is incredible.

Things were no different tonight. Luka absolutely torched Denver to the tune of 33 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists in 35 minutes. The Mavericks kept him out there, and he kept things in overdrive long after the game was decided. Luka hunted mismatches and attacked gaps constantly against Denver, targeting DeAndre Jordan, Michael Porter Jr., and Bones Hyland in pick and rolls and isolations. The Nuggets had no answer for the MVP candidate, and the level of competency in matching up with him tonight was frighteningly bad.

Porter struggles without Joker once again

Without Nikola Jokić and Jamal Murray out there, Porter is the natural option to step up and assume additional responsibility within the starting lineup. He just began the first year of a five-year max contract, and this is part of the assignment: step it up when the other stars are out.

Unfortunately, the opposite has been true over the last two games Jokić has missed. Porter scored just five points on eight shots on Wednesday night versus the New York Knicks, and his struggles continued tonight, scoring just 10 points on 4-of-15 shooting and 1-of-5 from three-point range. It was clear from the get-go that Porter didn’t have a good feel for how to generate the best shots for himself, and that’s to say nothing of the defensive issues that plagued him. He stopped Luka two times early on but struggled to match up when the superstar switched onto him for the rest of the game. Luka also took advantage of Porter’s indecision on rotations between the paint and the corner, effectively forcing him to guard neither spot.

It’s not a surprise that Porter has struggled. He’s a largely dependent player on the offense functioning well and for players like Jokić to set him up for shooting opportunities. Unfortunately, the Nuggets need him to be more self-sufficient with Jokić out, and that simply hasn’t been part of Porter’s development. The Nuggets have tried so hard to get Porter to play off-ball that he hasn’t sufficiently developed with the ball in his hands. That’s problematic in a playoff environment.

Bones is all by his lonesome

When the Nuggets traded away Monte Morris and Will Barton for KCP and Ish Smith, they became a better team at full strength. KCP’s ability to affect the outcome on both ends of the floor is a big deal and has been a constant in Denver’s lineup for the first 15 games of the season.

Unfortunately, the byproduct of that trade is that there’s fewer capable ball handlers on the roster. It’s a flaw that’s naturally covered up by Jokić, but when the big fella sits, the Nuggets struggle to create offense. Off the bench tonight, the Nuggets ran out Bones, Christian Braun, Vlatko Čančar, Zeke Nnaji, and then staggered Porter, KCP, and Bruce Brown at different times. The result is a ton of pressure on Bones to create everything. Early on, he did reasonably well, generating five assists in the first half and hitting a couple tough buckets. In the second half though, his efficiency spiraled, a symptom of the burden he carries.

Bones finished the game with 17 points on 16 shots, hitting 3-of-11 three-pointers. He had six assists compared to three turnovers. It wasn’t a super efficient performance, but it wasn’t a bad one. The bigger issue was that the rest of the bench combined for just three assists themselves.

This is less of an issue when everyone’s healthy, but with Ish Smith missing a bunch of time early on and both Jokić and Murray missing of late, it’s an impossible task to ask Bones to prop up the bench offense by himself, especially with opposing teams going after him at the other end all the while.

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