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Game Preview: What to Watch For in the Nuggets Game Against the Mavericks

by Christopher Dempsey
Nuggets Insider

Things are getting real for the Nuggets as the NBA season crosses over the halfway point and winds toward the All-Star break. The Nuggets are in a three-way tie at 22-21 in the Western Conference playoff race, and, with the current ties being broken, they stand in eighth place.

Coach Michael Malone can see some of the mental fatigue on his bunch as the pressure mounts to stay among the top eight spots in the conference, but also sees a hopeful second-half of the season.

“We’re a team hopefully trending in the right direction,” Malone said. “This past seven or eight games hasn’t been a great stretch for us overall, and obviously I think fatigue has definitely set in. And our youth is not an excuse, it’s a reality. We are playing a lot of young players. … We’re not satisfied but we’re moving in the right direction.”

The Nuggets are in the midst of a home-heavy schedule in January and February. The Dallas Mavericks are Tuesday night’s challenge at the Pepsi Center – the first of back-to-back games that finish in Los Angeles on Wednesday against the Clippers. And the Mavericks, who have beaten the Nuggets once this season already, are playing good basketball with wins in six of their last 10 games.

Starting with Tuesday night’s game, Malone wants to see optimal effort each night out.

“I hate to lose more than I like to win, but it is how you lose,” Malone said. “Overall, my message would be this: Play hard. Yeah, you’re young, you’re tired and all of this stuff. But we have to find a way every night we step on the court. … If we play hard every night, we’ll give ourselves a chance, while creating the right habits and culture that we need moving forward.”

What do the Nuggets need to do to be in position to beat the Mavericks? Start with these things…

Be mindful of the… two-point shot?: Yep. In the first meeting between the two teams, the Mavericks first 12 made two-point shots all came in the paint. They made 37 2-point shots overall – one fewer than the total number of makes the Nuggets had from the field total. And Dallas’ makes came in all varieties – but most of all, the Mavericks were deadly in transition and in drives to the basket. The Nuggets are a much better defensive team now than on Dec. 4, in the first meeting, but it is a difficult challenge all the same. There are a number of ball-handlers that can get to the rim. One-on-one defense has to be stout, and help defense must be quick and decisive.

Force Harrison Barnes to shoot from further than 10 feet: As Harrison Barnes has grown over the course of his career, so has his understanding of his game and patience on the court. Barnes has been persistent about getting to the rim this season, using his size to overpower smaller players and his quickness to get by bigger defenders. He’s taking 28 percent of his shots (197 overall) inside of five feet. It’s the largest chunk of the shots Barnes takes overall and he’s shooting 60.4 percent on them. Against the Nuggets he posted up eight times out of his 18 shot attempts. Barnes was 4-of-8 on those attempts, and the Mavericks flat-out targeted him, putting him in screen rolls knowing the Nuggets would switch up top, then posting him up on smaller defenders. The Nuggets only brought more than one defender once. Barnes was 4-of-7 when single-covered on post ups. The Nuggets may have to fight through screens to keep Wilson Chandler on Barnes as much as possible.

Take advantage of size: The Mavericks force teams to play a lot of small lineups, but the Nuggets start big in the front court with Mason Plumlee and Nikola Jokic. Jokic was injured and did not play in the first meeting on Dec. 4, so that’s a big deal for the Nuggets this time around. The Nuggets could play up a size advantage while still being nimble enough on defense with Plumlee’s athleticism to be able to be solid against a ton of movement, passing and cutting from Mavericks offensive players.

INJURY REPORT: Paul Millsap (wrist) is out of tonight’s game.

Christopher Dempsey: and @chrisadempsey on Twitter