Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, left, is congratulated for his game-winning basket by guard Monte Morris during the team’s NBA basketball game against the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Denver. The Nuggets won 100-99.
The Mavericks nearly survived flight delays and a Bomb Cyclone, yet they were helpless against Nikola Jokic’s game-winner.
Jokic awoke from a three-quarter slumber, poured in his only four baskets of the game, and the Nuggets survived 100-99 on an improbable, fading one-handed turnaround at the buzzer.
Denver entered the fourth quarter down 10 points before they slowly chipped away, first on the defensive end and then with Jokic in the post. The Nuggets held the Mavericks to just 10 fourth-quarter points and got a season-high 33 from veteran forward Paul Millsap. A ferocious dunk from Dallas’ sensational rookie Luka Doncic nearly gave the Mavericks the game, putting them up 99-98 with only seconds remaining.
“The urgency,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “That really was the biggest thing. We started getting stops, started forcing turnovers, I thought Nikola was a lot more aggressive in that fourth quarter offensively. In the NBA, if you want to be a good team, you gotta win games in different ways. Did not play our best game tonight but down the stretch, we got stops, got rebounds and Nikola obviously bails us out with an unbelievable finish.”
Backup guard Monte Morris was vital on both ends of the floor, finishing with seven points and four assists and several huge defensive stops. Aside from his winner, Jokic tallied 11 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists.
The win improved the Nuggets’ record to 45-22 and moved them to just one game back of first-place Golden State. Perhaps more importantly, it gave them a 3 and ½ game lead over the Rockets for the No. 2 seed with 15 games remaining.
The Mavericks, who entered having lost 11 of their last 12 games, landed in Denver Thursday morning after Wednesday’s snowstorm.
“In the modern era of private planes and charters, I’ve never been with a team where this has happened,” said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “Look, the NBA is wild and crazy at times. … I’m not big into excuses. I certainly don’t want to make an excuse before we throw the ball up.”
A lackluster first half gave way to an equally confounding third quarter that saw the Mavericks extend their lead to 89-79. Jokic was uncharacteristically passive, content to facilitate instead of hunt for his shots, and the Nuggets simultaneously went cold from the 3-point line. Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson buried 11 points in the quarter, exposing a series of defensive breakdowns both on the perimeter and in the paint.
Mavericks legend Dirk Nowitzki, a 14-time all-star, earned the start Thursday in what might be his final visit to Denver. If it was, the future Hall of Famer has laid an ideal blueprint for the Nuggets’ franchise cornerstone to follow.
“In this day in age, with players moving all over the place and demanding trades, trying to play with this guy or that guy, the fact that Dirk has stayed in Dallas the entire career has been great for him and great for the Mavericks and that city,” Malone said. “If Nikola can kind of, another foreign import, come here and be a franchise player for many years and help lead this team to a world championship, I think it would be a terrific journey and end up in a Hall of Fame for Nikola as well.”
Malone said his favorite memory of Nowitzki came while participating in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders in South Africa a few summers ago.
“Whether we went to an orphanage or we went to help build houses, and seeing that side of him,” Malone recounted. “Here’s a Hall of Famer, a guy who has had a tremendous impact on the game, and to see how selfless, he has no ego and would do anything he could to bring a smile to a young boy or girl’s face, that to me was more special than watching him score all the points that he scored.”
Malone could’ve easily been describing Jokic, who often engages and teases kids on his way back to the locker room after games.
All the good vibes from Tuesday’s rousing win over Minnesota disappeared during an underwhelming first half for the Nuggets. The Mavericks, despite their nightmare travel schedule, took a 57-51 lead into halftime with three different players logging double figures.
Most of Denver’s offense stemmed from Millsap’s 20-point first half, a vital boost while Jokic struggled from the field. The Nuggets’ best player managed just two shots to go along with seven rebounds and five assists in the first half.
Denver enjoyed a Morris-fueled 25-8 run over the first and second quarters and momentarily took an eight-point lead before the Mavericks stormed back to close the half.