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Kyrie Irving Game-Winner Lifts Mavs Over Nuggets in Luka Doncic Return

Mavs superstars Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving led their team to a victory over the reigning NBA champion Nuggets, which included a game-winning shot.

DALLAS — Luka Doncic returned to the Dallas Mavericks (39-29) lineup to face the Denver Nuggets (47-21) on Sunday afternoon after a one-game due to left hamstring soreness. The Mavs achieved a 107-105 victory using a game-winning floater from Kyrie Irving created by an inbounds play the team frequently works on.

“It felt good. It’s a play that we work on during shootaround pretty often, so it felt good to execute," Irving said about the play leading to his game-winning shot. "I had trust in my teammates out there and, in the end, being lucky enough to hit a left-hand floater. I looked at it after the game and I was pretty far out. Shots that I work on and just being ambidextrous and just trusting the skills that I work on.”

Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets

With the Nuggets switching an initial action on the far side of the floor, Irving received a corner pin-in screen from P.J. Washington, who Nikola Jokic was guarding. With Irving coming toward the ball, Nikola Jokic was put in a position to switch onto Irving with space for Irving to attack going toward the elbow, allowing him to take a dribble before elevating into a left-hand hook over Jokic's outstretched arm. 

"A majority of it is instinctual and comes from preparation for hours that no one sees," Irving said of his game-winning shot. "I saw Jokic taking away my pull-up going left. I had hit one or two tonight, so I knew he was gonna come up, but I didn’t know he was gonna commit like that. He was forcing me inside the 3-point line, so as soon as I felt him kind of behind me, I was like, ‘Oh, I have my left hand. It’s wide-open; why don't I go to it.’ I think that's what happened [and] how I saw it. [It’s] just instincts.”

Both Mavs superstars produced dynamic performances on a night it was needed, with the remaining three starters scoring in single figures. Doncic totaled 37 points, nine rebounds, and three assists, while Irving provided 23 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds, with the rest of the starting lineup scoring in single figures. 

“It feels good to be able to play those amount of consistent games and get a feel for one another," Irving said of playing with Doncic. "[It] really shows what we’ve been working on in practice too. You guys don’t get a chance to see all our practices, it’s me and Luka playing against our second five. We got a great chemistry and when we got guys making shots alongside of us, it makes it a lot easier.”

Dereck Lively II added 14 points, eight rebounds, and two blocks off the bench, helping to create a massive advantage in paint scoring and rebounding. Dallas finished with a 62-to-38 edge in points in the paint while finishing with 21 offensive rebounds and a 17-point advantage in second-chance scoring. Washington led with 11 total rebounds, while Derrick Jones Jr. had six offensive boards. Dallas received multiple offensive rebounds from six players. 

"[The Nuggets] are small and I think there was a carryover from Oklahoma City — they're small, too. I thought Gaff (Daniel Gafford) and those guys, P.J., D-Jones (Derrick Jones Jr.), to be able to give us second and third opportunities. I thought Gaff and D-Live kept the balls alive and came up with second or third opportunities against a very talented team like Denver, it gives you a chance.”

It was one of the rare nights the Mavs overcame being comfortably outperformed in perimeter shooting by making an impact in the paint as the Nuggets shot 12-28 (42.9 percent) from deep compared to 9-35 (25.7 percent) shooting by Dallas. 

“I think it’s a really big win. You know going against the Nuggets, they were champions last year," Doncic said. "They have an amazing team, they have the MVP, it’s tough to play against them. So, it’s really good for us.”

The Nuggets were plagued by poor bench play, with each of their starters achieving double-figure scoring outings. Jamal Murray led Denver with 23 points and seven assists. Michael Porter Jr. wasn't far behind, finishing with 20 points. Jokic had an uncharacteristic shooting night but still contributed 16 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists. Aaron Gordon chipped in 11 points and eight boards. 

With Doncic scoring the Mavs' first five points, the team got a 10-3 lead early. The team was playing fast, with the help of a steal from Irving, prying the ball from Jokic. This set up a transition finish for Jones, prompting Denver to call a timeout. 

The Nuggets often played compact early through the elbows but opened things up by running a wide pindown for Porter to curl off and hit a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. Denver exploited size mismatches with its wings more, including a dunk out of a post-up for Gordon while attacking Irving, putting the Nuggets up 14-12.

Doncic was the focal point of the Mavs' attack, drawing blitzes as the opening period progressed. Dallas managed to leverage Exum in the 4-on-3 to create an alley-oop dunk to Lively, who was in the dunker's spot. Managing to counter Denver's aggressive defensive approach was an important element in the game's flow. 

With the Nuggets spaced out in the half-court, the Mavs struggled to contain on the perimeter when rotations were needed. Jokic took advantage of single coverage post-ups against Lively at numerous moments. Denver used Horns sets more late in the opening period, intending to draw doubles on Jokic post touches, creating clean shots from the perimeter. 

The Mavs trailed by as many as eight points, but the Mavs rallied back late in the period by continuing to push the pace. With Nuggets coach Michael Malone and Reggie Jackson getting called for technical fouls, Irving made two free throws to bring the Mavs within two points late in the period. Denver ended the period up 34-30. 

With Doncic on the floor against the Nuggets' bench lineup, which included Murray as the only starter, the Mavs opened the second quarter on a 6-0 run to pull ahead 36-34. Both teams traded leads, with Doncic hitting multiple step-back 3s in part of a run that scored eight consecutive points to put Dallas up repeatedly. Entering a timeout with 6:30 left before halftime, the Slovenian superstar already had 21 points, with the Mavs leading 46-44. 

After the Nuggets' starters checked back into the game, the Mavs struggled to get defensive stops, but Irving and Exum had a strong impact while Doncic was on the bench. Dallas repeatedly struggled with helping off the dunker's spot, giving up dropoff pass chances for Jokic to find Gordon. 

Despite shooting 4-17 from beyond the arc in the first half, Dallas only trailed 61-58 at the break. Doncic already racked up 23 points while shooting 3-7 from deep, meaning the rest of the team was 1-10 through two quarters. The main factors at play, the Nuggets outscored the Mavs by a 10-point margin when Jokic was on the floor but lost the non-Jokic minutes by seven points. 

It didn't take long for the Mavs to tighten up defensively, holding the Nuggets to 44 points in the second half. Denver was held to 17-40 (42.5 percent) shooting overall while shooting 6-16 (37.5 percent) from the perimeter over the final two quarters. Jokic was held to eight points, while Murray and Pope combined for 24 points. Dallas remains confident in how the team matches up defensively after making midseason trades to add Washington and Gafford while building on a pre-existing foundation.  

“I feel like we match up with everybody well, especially on the defensive end," Irving said. "We have the ability to switch one through five, and we also have a foundational defense we’ve been going through pretty much the whole season. I felt like we just consistently worked on our communication and the trust that we have in the intangible skill sets to be able to stop teams."

The Mavs used a 9-0 run to take a 72-70 lead over the Nuggets, with Doncic and Irving being the driving forces behind the stretch. He made a floater, then found Irving for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer before drawing two out of a ball screen, enabling Jones to attack the weak side out of a 4-on-3 for a dunk. Irving then dished it to Gafford on the roll for a layup, encouraging Denver to call a timeout. 

An impressive scoring surge from Irving helped the Mavs close out the third quarter with a lead, while Doncic had the chance to rest from the bench. Between a pull-up jumper from the perimeter and another from mid-range, followed by a transition finish, Irving's seven straight points guided Dallas to an 84-79 advantage.

The Mavs opened the fourth quarter on a 4-0 run, extending their lead to a game-high nine points. Denver quickly called a timeout. After the Nuggets started to rally back, Irving and Doncic each hit off-the-dribble 3-pointers to push Dallas back ahead by nine points. Both players had combined for 52 points at this point. 

The momentum continued in the Mavs' favor after Jones finished the rim, followed by Lively blocking a shot in the paint. The series of plays was capped off by Doncic getting to the rim for a finish as a transition trailer. Dallas was up by 13 points before Murray hit a quick trigger 3-pointer out of a handoff to reduce the deficit to 10 points. 

Among the Mavs' defensive strategies in the fourth quarter was to have the center roam in the half-court by being responsible for Gordon while a wing player was guarding Jokic. Dallas mixed up various defensive approaches throughout the night, including how high they played the big in various actions. The goal was not to allow Jokic to see the same coverages and matchups for an extended period. 

"I thought being able to put a four on Joker and let our five roam and protect the rim was big tonight with Gafford and D-Live (Dereck Lively II)," Kidd said. "Those two did a really good job of executing the game plan and then being able to rebound out of that. When you give a free run to Gordon or these other guys on the perimeter, it can put you in a bad situation rebounding. But I thought, again, we did a good job of rebounding the ball. D-Jones (Derrick Jones Jr.), P.J., those guys being able to come back and help out."

Using a 14-2 run in clutch time, the Nuggets turned it up at the right time, taking a 105-102 lead with 26.8 seconds remaining in regulation. Murray's shotmaking was a critical element—he scored eight of those points. Despite the circumstances, the Mavs managed to close out the game with a victory. 

Jokic acknowledged the challenge the Mavs' personnel posed, but the Nuggets' main issue was their inability to finish after taking the lead. 

"They have a couple of guys they can switch on us. I don't think we responded very well to them," Jokic said. "We had some possessions and open looks late we didn't execute. We were able to get back the lead in the fourth quarter, but we didn't finish."

Dallas had possession of the ball with 26.8 seconds left in regulation, ending with Doncic tying it up on a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer created by an inbounds play. Irving thanked Doncic for making this shot in part of his clutch play, setting up the game-winner he went on to make. 

"I wouldn't have gotten that shot off without Luka tying the ball game," Irving said. "He was unbelievable tonight, making a lot of clutch plays and getting to the free throw line. So I give a lot of credit to him for getting us to that position and then allowing me to get that game-winner at the end."

The Mavs got a needed defensive stop after tying it up. Murray missed a short-range pull-up jumper before securing a defensive rebound. This created a final possession with 2.8 seconds remaining and a tied score. Dallas had options for approaching the final possession with a tied score.

Using another inbound play, Irving drove left before putting up a left-handed floater, resulting in a game-winning shot. Jokic, who switched onto Irving during the play, was aware of what the Mavs were trying to accomplish but gave Irving credit for making a tough shot. 

"Yeah, it was the same action that they have run before in the game, with the continuation of Kyrie [Irving] coming from the corner," Jokic said. "I mean Kyrie made a really tough shot. If anyone could make that shot, it was him. I was surprised, but also kind of not. He can make that shot for sure." 

Malone isn't ready to overreact to a game-winning shot he conveyed as improbable. He's willing to live with the results in this situation. 

"Yeah, I mean, if a guy beat us making an off-handed hook shot from the elbow, yes, I do,” Malone said.

Looking ahead, the Mavs will play the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night in a one-game road trip.