Two teams with depth issues go head-to-head in hopes their superstars can carry them when the Dallas Mavericks visit the Denver Nuggets on Friday night.
If it indeed takes place, the matchup between Denver’s Nikola Jokic, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player, and Luka Doncic, last year’s sixth-place finisher in the balloting, will be just the ninth of their brilliant careers.
Each has led his team to four wins, and both have averaged double-doubles, with Jokic going for 23 points and 11.1 rebounds while Doncic has countered with 26 points and 10.8 assists.
They dueled three times last season, including a classic in Denver last January in which each scored 38 points. The Mavericks won the game in overtime, 124-117, with Doncic outscoring Jokic 9-3 in the extra session.
The road team also took the other two matchups last season. Coincidentally, the individual scoring winner between the two stars was on the losing end in both, with Doncic going for 35 in a home loss later in January before Jokic had 26 in a second home defeat in March.
Neither figures to be on top of his game in the first of three scheduled meetings this season.
Jokic sustained a bruised right knee on Tuesday in Denver’s 122-110 loss to the Utah Jazz in Salt Lake City. He was held out of practice on Thursday, although Nuggets coach Michael Malone reported afterward that every indication was the injury is not serious.
“He said (the knee) feels a little weak, and I just shut him down,” Malone said after the Utah game. “If you leave it up to Nikola, he is going to play every game.”
Doncic appeared perfectly healthy during a 25-point performance in Dallas’ 104-99 home win over the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night. However, he was extended to 34 minutes in the tight game in the opener of a back-to-back set.
The Mavericks were without Kristaps Porzingis against the Spurs because of a sore back. Like Jokic, he is expected to be a game-time decision after the flight to Denver.
“We will re-evaluate him (Friday),” Dallas coach Jason Kidd said before Thursday’s game. “I think it’s more on the (management) side … to take that precaution and we have a game (Friday) night, so hopefully we can see him (Friday) and he’ll be ready to go.”
Also without Trey Burke (COVID protocols), Kidd went all-out for the win against San Antonio despite being short-handed, playing just nine guys, all at least 14 minutes. Seven of the nine went 25 or more, including Reggie Bullock, who stepped into Porzingis’ starting spot against the Spurs and chipped in with seven points in 30 minutes.
Dallas’ four bench players — Jalen Brunson (19 points), Maxi Kleber (12), Frank Ntilikina (six) and Willie Cauley-Stein (four) — contributed 41 points to the win.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, have gotten no such support from their reserves. Five backups totaled 13 points at Utah, a game Denver lost by double digits despite the fact all five starters scored 13 or more points.
Denver’s reserves have totaled just 96 points in the club’s first four games.