Jokic and Murray benched as Nuggets let one slip away in Dallas

Mar 6, 2018; Dallas, TX, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) and Dallas Mavericks center Nerlens Noel (3) fight for the rebound during the second half at the American Airlines Center. The Mavericks defeat the Nuggets 118-107. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets took on the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night hoping to improve their playoff position as four other contenders for the 3-10 seeds in the Western Conference were in action. The Nuggets came out flat, and star center Nikola Jokic, as well as breakout guard Jamal Murray, were benched in the fourth quarter as the Mavericks upset the Nuggets 118-107.

The first quarter of this game featured another lethargic performance from Jokic. That has developed into a bit of a theme since Millsap’s return to the starting lineup and it held Denver back on Tuesday as their best player scored zero points on just one shot in the first quarter. Those types of performances can be survived by Denver if they include a strong outing in the assist department, but Jokic failed to make his usual impact as a passer. He looked uninterested, and the ball was seldom in his hands.

On the other end, the Mavericks out-hustled Denver. While the Nuggets had a superior quarter from the field, Dallas created several turnovers and crashed the offensive glass to create easy and second chance points as they ran circles around a flat Nuggets team. Dirk Nowitzki turned back the clock and dropped 9 points on a 3-3 performance from deep. Dallas led 29-25 after one.

The second quarter featured strong play from the bench unit, particularly Will Barton, and also Devin Harris, who scored his 10,000th career point against his former team and in his old home arena.

Quick aside: Dirk revealed post game that the Mavericks actually gave Harris the game ball. “We miss him” Dirk said — a nice gesture from the Mavs.

The strong push from the bench helped Denver leapfrog Dallas and begin to build a lead of their own. Denver’s bench would score 29 points in the half.

When the starters checked back in, it was actually Wilson Chandler who led the way offensively. The typically passive Chandler scored 16 points on 5-6 from the field as he looked to be one of the only starters who was engaged from start to finish.

It was a tough night for Denver’s young core as Jokic, Murray and Gary Harris had a minimal impact in the first half.

Despite the lacking effort from the young trio, Denver outshot the Mavericks by a considerable margin thanks to stellar shot selection and a substantial advantage in points in the paint. The Mavericks only shot 39 percent from the field, but they were still within reach thanks to seven offensive rebounds and 9 turnovers from Denver — two areas that continue to plague this Nuggets team when on the road. It all added up to a 62-58 lead for Denver at the half.

The third quarter is when good teams tend to pull away, and for much of the season, Denver has been an excellent team in the third. This hasn’t really been the case since the All-Star break and it certainly wasn’t the case in Dallas on Tuesday night. Denver exchanged their easy looks down low for desperate attempts from deep which clanked off the rim with maddening frequency, each miss ringing louder than the last.

The Mavericks, meanwhile, began to heat up from the field as Denver’s defense started to erode. Jokic turned in a miserable and inexcusable effort on the defensive end as his bizarre game continued. He appeared to have all but given up in this one and Denver watched helplessly as Dallas outscored them by a crippling 15 points in the third.

The story of the fourth was who was on the court — or perhaps more accurately, who wasn’t. Jokic was benched in the final quarter of this game, as was young Murray. If that sentence didn’t induce a double-take, you should go back and read it again. In the thick of a playoff race, head coach Michael Malone decided to bench arguably his best player and one of his most dynamic scorers.

“It was a coach’s decision” Malone explained after the game, when pressed on their notable absence in the fourth.

That became the topic of conversation for the duration of the game and during the post game affairs as Denver never recovered from the shots they took across the jaw in the previous quarter. The Nuggets would cut the lead down the single digits, but they never truly threatened to close the gap as they suffered an inexcusable 118-107 loss on the road.

Following the loss, the Nuggets fall to 35-29 on the year and 11-20 on the road. The Nuggets will return home tonight, and host the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second half of a back-to-back on Wednesday night. That game tips off at 8:30pm MT.