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Airing 3 grievances from the Mavericks’ 130-104 loss at the Denver Nuggets

The short-handed Mavs gave it a go in Denver, where they were outclassed and out-manned.

Dallas Mavericks v Denver Nuggets
Michael Porter Jr. #1 of the Denver Nuggets is guarded by Luka Doncic #77 of the Dallas Mavericks in the first quarter at Ball Arena on December 18, 2023 in Denver, Colorado.
Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Dallas Mavericks’ 130-104 loss at the Denver Nuggets (18-10) on Monday brings us to one of the most charming portions of the Festivus season, the airing of grievances.

To use the terminology of the holiday’s founder, Frank Costanza, we’ve got a lot of problems with what went down at Denver’s Ball Arena. And now, you’re going to hear about it.

Specifically, we’ve got three grievances to air from Monday’s loss, which was billed going in as a showdown of two of the top teams in the Western Conference. What we got was a bit of a flop in the second half, even for this M.A.S.H. unit version of the Mavericks (16-10), who were without Kyrie Irving (heel contusion) for the fifth straight game and were also missing Dereck Lively II (sprained ankle), Josh Green (right elbow) and Maxi Kleber (dislocated toe).

A Mile-High Muddle

With all that firepower on the shelf, the Mavs got off to a terribly slow start in Denver, scoring just 20 points in the first quarter. The sluggish offense couldn’t find a rhythm early on, as the Mavs missed their first eight 3-point attempts and shot 10-of-23 from the field in the first.

This has been a trend in games that Lively has missed this year. The Mavs are now 0-2 when Lively is out of the lineup. When he’s in there, the Luka-to-Lively pick-and-roll set gives this offense such a different level of freedom of motion, and it is very noticeable when that element is absent. Not to mention how much he would have helped as another body to throw against the Nuggets frontline of Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr. and Aaron Gordon.

Luka Dončić got the worst of the slugfest early on, as he caught an inadvertent elbow to the chin from Jokic in the first and another on a drive from Julian Strawther that busted Dončić’s lip open early in the second.

Tim Hardaway Jr. finally cashed in on a 3-pointer on Dallas’ first possession of the second quarter to bring the Mavs to within 28-23, and Luka Dončić stepped back for a beauty of a 3-pointer on the following possession. Grant Williams saw one go in from the corner just a minute later to keep Dallas within 30-29, and the floodgates were flung open from there. the Mavs made six 3-balls in the second quarter to stay in the game.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Denver Nuggets
Dallas Mavericks forward Derrick Jones Jr. (55) battles for a loose ball with Denver Nuggets forward Aaron Gordon (50) and guard Jamal Murray (27) in the second quarter at Ball Arena.
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Dallas got a little better on offense in the next two quarters and shot 41-for-92, or 44.6%, in the loss. The Nuggets were sluggish and unbalanced on offense at times, too. They played with their food for nearly three quarters and picked the moment they wanted to run the Mavs out of the gym. Guard Jamal Murray paced a balanced Nuggets attack that saw six scorers reach double figures, with 22 points. Gordon added 21 on 7-of-9 shooting in the win.

A little help here?

We’re getting used to Dončić’s heroics, as they happen on a regularly scheduled, semi-nightly basis. After winning Western Conference Player of the Week Monday, Dončić started his bid for back-to-back recognition with a sizzling second-quarter effort. He scored 22 in the second on 6-of-7 3-point shooting after missing his first two attempts in the first quarter.

If Dončić didn’t go nuclear, the Mavs would have been out of this game before halftime. His pull-up 3-pointer with :23 left before halftime pulled the Mavs to within nine, down just 68-59 at the break.

The Mavs’ shorthanded lineup just left the team with too thin a margin of error. Dončić did all he could to keep Dallas connected in the second half, but the talent disparity on the floor with all the Mavs’ injuries was just always pushing the game in the home team’s direction in this one. Luka had just about nothing to work with, and he still kept Dallas in it most of the way.

All Dallas Mavericks not named Luka Dončić combined to shoot 7-of-27 from 3-point territory. Dante Exum was the only other Maverick to score in double figures in Denver, finishing with 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting. After shooting 0-of-5 on his 3-point attempts Monday, Derrick Jones Jr. in has gone particularly cold lately, connecting on just five of his last 27 3-point attempts.

Dončić scored 38 points, grabbed 11 boards and doled out eight assists in the loss. He shot 6-of-12 from 3-point land but did miss four free throws, too.

Short-changed

As the Denver lead ballooned to 17 points late in the third, a collective groan emanated from the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. The coming loss was now inevitable, leaving Mavs fans to wonder: what could have been against two of the best teams in the league if Dallas had its full complement of riders? In losses to both Minnesota and Denver in the last week, a beleaguered Mavericks’ roster, decimated by injury, fought to stay in a game but wore down late against an opponent who was just clearly superior in the moment.

While the Mavs’ injury woes somehow haven’t sucked the team’s record down the drain, Mavs fans are being short-changed right now. With Irving, Lively and a couple more pieces intact, could the Mavs have pulled out another impressive win this season?

Are the Mavericks closer to or farther away from the top teams in the league? Are they a fraud, as detractors online like to say, or a legitimate threat in the West? We would usually have a better handle on those questions 25 games into the season. But as it stands now, we don’t know, because those teams blew out a shell of the Mavericks’ full roster, and even short-handed, Dallas is good enough to dispense with bad NBA teams.

Safe to say, all Mavs fans want for Festivus this year is a chance to go on a run with Dončić and a full complement of healthy running mates. As visions of Lukai dance in our heads this holiday season, each game without Irving, Lively and the rest of the crew is a bit of a letdown. Monday night’s loss in Denver certainly was.