Down three starters, Bones Hyland erupts as Nuggets stun Mavericks

DALLAS — Zeke Nnaji’s irrational confidence was infectious.

When he ended the third quarter barking back at Luka Doncic, it was the same type of attitude his team employed in stunning the Mavericks, 98-97, on Sunday night.

“I’m right there every time,” Nnaji told Doncic only moments after swatting him near the rim.

Despite missing starters Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to health and safety protocol, and forward Aaron Gordon to a non-COVID illness, the Nuggets rebounded from Friday night’s 28-point loss and shocked the healthy Mavericks.

Before Nuggets coach Michael Malone commented on the win, he issued a heartfelt condolence on behalf of the entire organization to all those impacted by the Colorado Springs shooting. With no smooth segue, he apologized for not saying something before the game.

“Proud, man,” he said. “Really, really proud. … I don’t buy or believe in self-pity, and our players don’t, either.”

Michael Porter Jr. buried a clutch 3-pointer from the corner with 55 seconds remaining to take a one-point lead, and the Nuggets withstood a last-second 3-point look from Doncic to survive.

No one on the Nuggets enjoys more confidence than Bones Hyland, whose career-high 29 points paced Denver’s offense. He scored 27 of them over the final three quarters. Porter had 14, the second-highest total on the team, and DeAndre Jordan grabbed 17 rebounds. Consistently, it was Hyland acting as the engine of Denver’s offense.

Doncic had 22 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, but the blanket coverage from Bruce Brown was instrumental in springing the win. The Nuggets hung on despite losing Jeff Green to a knee injury in the first half.

The improbable win, made possible by an even more improbable shot, improved Denver’s record to 10-6 on the season with its next game Tuesday vs. Detroit.

Vlatko Cancar sank a buzzer-beater in the waning moments of the second quarter. That it came after halftime may have made it the first of its kind in NBA history.

Cancar buried a 53-foot buzzer-beater in the final two seconds of what, technically, was the second quarter. Those two seconds were replayed only moments before the third quarter, and after both teams returned from the halftime locker room. It was the result of a Doncic out-of-bounds call that wasn’t caught in the moment, and by the time it was, the halftime act was already on the court.

“Practice makes perfect,” Cancar said from the joyous postgame locker room. It’s a shot Cancar practices after every shootaround.

After the miracle shot, the Nuggets put the clamps on Dallas’ attack in the third quarter. They flew around defensively, flashing the multiple efforts that their coach had demanded, and limited Dallas to only 18 points in the third quarter. Brown and Nnaji each swatted Doncic, as Denver’s mounting belief kept growing. While the defense ratcheted up, Hyland kept slithering into the lane and dissecting the Mavs’ defense. Denver held a tenuous 79-74 lead going into the fourth.

Down three starters, Malone knew his team’s best chance was to play Doncic physical and play him aggressive. On more than one occasion, his primary defender picked up Doncic early and stuck with him the length of the court. As Malone promised, the Nuggets threw everything but the kitchen sink at him. Brown was the first line of defense, and Christian Braun, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Nnaji and Davon Reed each took their turn.

“You don’t even have a margin for error,” Malone said of his team’s health status.

Denver entered halftime down just 56-52. Doncic entered the break with 12 points and six assists. Against him, they more than held their own, but Dallas’ bench ignited for six 3-pointers to stake a small lead.

The Nuggets stayed close thanks to strong efforts up and down the roster. Whether it was physical defense, tough shot-making or quality work on the glass, everyone who played contributed. Porter and Hyland paced the Nuggets with eight points each, while Brown orchestrated the first-team offense with five assists. Jordan entered halftime with six points and 11 rebounds, offering an invaluable presence inside.

With the ball in his hands, Hyland drew significant defensive attention from Dallas.

“To be quite frank, we need his offense,” Malone said.

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