The journey to the NBA Cup starts tonight
The Dallas Mavericks have wasted no time in raising fans’ expectations for this new season, kicking the doors down and jumping out to a 4-0 record. They join the Boston Celtics as the only two remaining unbeaten teams. (A group the Nuggets were booted from when they got swamped by the Timberwolves on Monday.) And mind you, Dallas has done this with Kyrie Irving missing two games with an ankle injury.
Now, not only is their perfect record and spot atop the Western Conference at stake, but this matchup will mark the first of the qualifying games for the newly introduced In-Season Tournament, so get an appropriate amount more excited based on how you feel about that new wrinkle to the season.
While Dante Exum has looked like a solid bench contributor, and it was a lot of fun to see Jaden Hardy clutch up in the fourth against the Bulls, Dallas didn’t sign Irving so they could rely on a player working back into the NBA and a sophomore. It’s nit-picky to complain about the offense that ranks second in the NBA while the team is 4-0, but the half-court flow seemed noticeably bogged down against Chicago. Finding ways to win is good, but Denver is no Chicago (lopsided loss to Minnesota notwithstanding.)
Against a team as methodical and potent as Denver, it would really help to have a finisher and facilitator like Kyrie, but only if he’s at 100%.
Dereck Lively legacy game
The hype train for Dereck Lively was off and running after he stole the show in fellow rookie Victor Wembenyama’s debut. Except for getting into foul trouble in game three, Lively is exceeding expectations. He had perhaps his best game yet in his last outing when he pulled down 13 rebounds (seven offensive boards) and dished out six assists. It’s an intriguing combo reminiscent of the MVP he’ll be facing off against.
Guarding Jokic will be, by an order of magnitude, the toughest assignment Lively will have faced thus far in his young NBA career. He’s shown an ability to move his feet to stick with smaller players and has the quickness to avoid getting beat off the dribble with regularity, but that’s not really Jokic’s skill set. How Lively handles Jokic’s footwork and size will either be a timely reminder that he’s still just a rookie or crank the fanbase’s enamorment with the rookie to new levels.
Pain in the Paint
The excruciatingly slow pace of play is a Denver trademark and something these two teams used to have in common. (Dallas’ pace is solidly middling now, thank you very much.) With an offense that runs through their superstar Nikola Jokic, Denver is scoring 58.8 paint points per game, good for third in the league and just .2 points behind league leaders Charlotte. Dallas has given up 48.8 paint points per game so far, but they haven’t faced a team as dead-set at getting into the lane as Denver is.
While Dallas’ half-court offense reigns supreme, their defense is still something of a work in progress. If they can limit the damage Denver does down low, they’ll give themselves a great shot in this one, as the Nuggets aren’t much of a three-point shooting team, both in volume and shot percentage.
How to watch
You can broadcast or stream the game on ESPN at 9:00 p.m. CST.