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3 things to watch for as the Mavericks travel to Denver to face the Nuggets

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Dallas embarks on a tough road trip, starting with the red-hot Nuggets.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Mavericks (15-13) head on a tough four-game road trip, starting with the West-leading Denver Nuggets (20-9) Tuesday night in Denver.

After a hot stretch, Dallas comes into the game limping both figuratively and literally — Dennis Smith Jr. and J.J. Barea are both nursing injuries (although Barea should return tonight) and the Mavericks lost back-to-back games against the Phoenix Suns and the Sacramento Kings. Due to the Kings’ rapid improvement this season, only one of those losses was actually embarrassing.

Dallas starts a gauntlet tonight — not only is this the start of a four-game road trip (where the team has a 2-10 record) but they don’t play another true lottery team until Jan. 9 against those Suns again. Until then it’s all current playoff teams except for the New Orleans Pelicans, who are in the hunt still.

Needless to say, the Mavericks will figure out who they really are by the time we ring in the New Year. It starts tonight against a good Nuggets team.

The Nuggets are winning but hurt, can the Mavericks take advantage?

Despite winning eight of their last 12 games, the Nuggets are kind of in a bad way — they are missing injuries to three starters and one key reserve.

The missing starters are Will Barton (recovering from a bad groin injury), Paul Millsap (out for the next month or so with a toe injury) and Gary Harris (out another three to four weeks with a hip injury). The bench piece hurt is Isaiah Thomas, who has been dealing with a hip issue again.

None of those players will suit up tonight, so theoretically, the Mavs should have some sort of advantage there. The question is whether they can take advantage? Even with the injuries mounting, the Nuggets continue to pile up wins and they’re always deadly at home.

Mostly because...

Nikola Jokic, emerging MVP candidate

Jokic’s counting stats for the season are extremely impressive (17.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game) but they aren’t too far off the norm from his prior season.

The big difference is that the Nuggets are battling for the number one seed in the West right now and he’s stepped up his game considerably since the injuries took hold. In the month of December, he’s averaging 21.7 points, 11 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game. This is missing two of the Nuggets important players — a good shotmaker in Harris and a good playmaker in Barton.

With Jokic on the floor the Nuggets score 111.3 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com’s stats page. That’s a league-leading number, even though the Nuggets have already missed a ton of games from important contributors. When Jokic hits the bench, their offense dips to 103.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would be one of the worst in the league.

The Nuggets still get better on defense when Jokic leaves, but it changes from a great number to an almost unsustainable elite one. He’s improved there, while still stepping up his offense to shoulder more of the burden with the injuries. Short-handed against the Ratpors on Sunday, Jokic dropped 26 points, nine rebounds and four assists in a tough win. He’s legit and if he keeps putting up numbers and the Nuggets stay atop the West, he could put himself into the MVP conversation.

Needless to say, the Mavericks will have their hands full. Jokic isn’t shooting the three well this year (under 30 percent) but he’s been a good shooter before. That could mean trouble with DeAndre Jordan, who, uhm, doesn’t like leaving the paint. Jokic is so massive and has such a good post game, it’d be death to put Harrison Barnes on him. Woof, the Mavericks are going to have to pull some rabbits out of hats to stop Jokic.

Will the Mavericks hit a shot?

While DeAndre Jordan and his unique brand of standing still defense is riling up Mavs Twitter (and for good reason!) it’s actually been the offense that has cost the Mavericks in their mini-slump.

Over the last five games, Dallas is shooting 28.7 percent from three, second-worst mark in the league over that span. Luka Doncic has been in a slump since his hip injury against the Lakers, Dorian Finney-Smith’s jumper has been absent and there’s just a total lack of shooting from anywhere outside of Barnes and Wesley Matthews.

With Barea hurt, the Mavericks bench has no capable or proven shooters, no matter how good Devin Harris’ form looks. The Mavs are still trying out the Dwight Powell, Stretch Five experiment and Maxi Kleber has been frigid since November. Dallas desperately needs recently returned Dirk Nowitzki to help boost an offense that is stuck in the mud with a lack of shooting. If Doncic isn’t hitting, Barea isn’t playing and Dirk isn’t Dirk-ing, the Mavericks just don’t have enough shooters.

How to watch

The game tips off at 8 p.m. Central Time and can be watched on Fox Sports Southwest and NBA League Pass.