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Nuggets to be put to test vs. surprising Mavs

The Denver Nuggets have proven their mettle against the top team in the Eastern Conference and some of the best in the West.

Now they put their top seed in the Western Conference on the line against one of the surprise teams in the NBA.

The Dallas Mavericks are in town for a Tuesday night matchup, and despite having lost two in a row they are in contention in the ho-hum Southwest Division. Dallas (15-13) is a half-game behind first-place Memphis heading into Monday's schedule.

One of the big factors for Dallas turning things around is the arrival of teen sensation Luka Doncic, whom the team acquired in a draft-day trade back in June. Doncic is the heir apparent to veteran Dirk Nowitzki and he has lived up to the hype 28 games into his rookie year.

Doncic, like Nowitzki, is a special player coming out of Europe at a young age. The 19-year-old Slovenian leads the Mavericks in scoring at 18.2 per game and is coming off a 28-point, nine-assist game in a loss to Sacramento on Sunday night.

He also got to play with the 40-year-old Nowitzki, who made his season debut against Phoenix on Thursday night after missing the first 26 games recovering from left ankle surgery. He has played just six and eight minutes, respectively, in his first two games.

Nowitzki is in the twilight of his career and he's helping his young teammates even when he has been sidelined.

"Off the court, he's been great. I've learned a lot," rookie Jalen Brunson told the Dallas Morning News. "To see the type of effect he brings on the court is amazing. He came in and made that shot off the glass like he was in a rhythm. He just knows what to do with the ball."

Nowitzki most likely won't see much playing time against the surging Nuggets, who have won two straight and eight of their last 10 despite having a depleted lineup. Opening night starters Paul Millsap (broken toe), Gary Harris (hip) and Will Barton (core muscle surgery) are all out, but Barton could be back in the next two weeks.

Denver (20-9) has dug deep into its bench to fill the holes, and the players have responded.

"Everybody is being aggressive, taking shots, nobody is complaining," backup point guard Monte Morris said after Sunday's 95-86 win over Toronto, the top team in the East. "We've got the ball moving and we're having fun."

The Nuggets have relied on center Nikola Jokic and guard Jamal Murray to lead the way and they have responded. Jokic leads the team in points (17.7), rebounds (9.9), assists (7.5) and steals (1.4), and Murray is averaging 17.5 points and 14.7 assists.

Forward Juancho Hernangomez, a third-year forward out of Spain, has logged major minutes with the injuries and Morris has also played well behind Murray.

Dallas could be without two of its guards. J.J. Barea has missed two straight games with a left ankle sprain and Dennis Smith Jr. has a sore right wrist that has kept him out of three of the last four.

Updated December 17, 2018

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