It was a risky defensive gamble in the first place. Selling out to contest a 3-point shooter rarely works out for the defense. The risks of committing a foul in that situation are usually too great. A foul and three free-throws is a kill shot to any defensive momentum.

But Vlatko Cancar took a chance. He took a risk. And his block of a Max Strus corner 3 with under five minutes remaining in regulation went down as one of the key fourth-quarter defensive stops in the Nuggets’ 112-108 win over the Heat Monday night in Miami.

His defensive stand against Strus a couple of minutes later with Denver clinging to a four-point lead and under a minute to go in the fourth may have been even more clutch.

Starting in place of an injured Aaron Gordon, Cancar tallied 10 points (4-6 shooting), 5 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 block and 1 steal in 28 minutes. His fingerprints were all over the Nuggets’ latest victory.

For those two fourth-quarter stops, Michael Malone awarded Cancar the Defensive Player of the Game chain after the win.

Cancar’s breakout 2022-23 campaign continued in Miami. His rise this year has been one of the most satisfying storylines of this magical Nuggets season. Cancar has gone from a benchwarmer throughout his first three seasons in Denver to one of the Nuggets’ most consistent and reliable complimentary players this year.

He’s provided the Nuggets stability in any role that he’s been thrust into. Starter, reserve, small forward, power forward, Cancar always produces. His extra-effort plays have been critical this season.

Cancar also understands and carries out the golden rule of Nuggets basketball better than most of his teammates: Get the ball to Nikola Jokic as much as possible.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Cancar operates that way. He and Jokic have a chemistry that others simply don’t. They share the same outlook on basketball. They understand the game the same way. They grew up playing a similar style under similar principles. They speak the same language. Actually. Of course, Cancar is the only other Nuggets player who speaks Serbian.

Of Cancar’s six assists against the Heat, four resulted in Jokic baskets. This helper demonstrates why Cancar can be so valuable.

As soon as Cancar recognizes that Bruce Brown isn’t going to be able to feed Jokic at the elbow, he cuts to the foul line to create an angle to get the back-to-back MVP the ball. Not a lot of Nuggets players make this off-ball cut. That one movement and brief moment of creativity and awareness from Cancar turned a stagnant Nuggets possession that was going nowhere into a basket.

Cancar really doesn’t have many weaknesses as a basketball player. He’s shooting 44.2% from 3-point range. He’s an ultra-high IQ on and off-ball offensive player. He’s a good passer and reads the game better than most. Cancar has the Nuggets’ third-best assist-to-turnover ratio this season behind only Jokic and Jamal Murray. Defensively, he can hold his own against most assignments. He’s stronger and quicker laterally than his matchup typically thinks. He’s more athletic than most of the players he shares the court with.

“I trust him,” Malone said earlier this season.

That’s definitely the feeling you get when Cancar plays. By now, he’s firmly in the Nuggets’ Circle of Trust. He should be entrenched in Denver’s rotation even when the Nuggets are fully healthy. Cancar is a better, more energetic, more consistent, and more reliable backup power forward option than Jeff Green.

There should be no stopping his breakout season.


Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. Hear him every day on the DNVR Nuggets Podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind