When it was ruled that Luka Doncic stepped out of bounds on his second-quarter buzzer-beating 3, and the Nuggets got the ball and the chance to re-do the final two seconds of the first half Sunday in Dallas, Michael Malone made a key substitution.

He put his best half-court shooter in the game.

Vlatko Cancar wasn’t on the floor for Doncic’s original 3, but he was when the Nuggets and Mavs replayed the last two seconds of the first half. Inserting Cancar proved to be the perfect move.

Cancar swished the 3 from a couple of steps beyond half-court. It was a wild sequence and six-point swing that transpired in only two seconds. It turned what could have been a 59-52 Mavs lead into only a 56-55 Dallas advantage. It was a momentum-turning, game-changing shot midway through the Nuggets’ 98-97 win.

But why was Cancar the guy who Malone decided to sub into the game and take that 3? Why Cancar and not Bones Hyland, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Michael Porter Jr? All three of them are shooting above 45% from 3-point range this season. Cancar isn’t in those guys’ class of shooter. He has a fine jump shot but isn’t who you’d think of when you need a clutch triple.

Here’s a theory: At the end of every Nuggets practice, after Malone has finished his media session and players that are speaking to the media that day finish their obligations, a similar scene tends to unfold on Denver’s practice court. Cancar, along with Nuggets assistant coaches and members of Denver’s player development staff, line up single file and practice half-court shots. It happens at the end of almost every practice. That group gets up one half-court shot after another. It’s just Cancar and a bunch of coaches. Shooting half-courters. He works on that shot every day.

Cancar has a rep within the Nuggets as a dead-eye half-court shooter too. He and Bruce Brown even hold their own 1-on-1 half-court shooting competitions.

“We call him half-court Vlatko,” Michael Malone said.

“The guy is uncanny with his ability to make those shots. And for him to do it in a game setting like tonight, I really feel like it changed the game.”

It was one of those perfect moments for a role player like Cancar. He rarely plays real minutes when the Nuggets are healthy. It mostly feels like he’s on this roster for moral support and team vibes. Three seasons ago, I reported on Cancar’s role as the “Jokic Whisperer” and how he will trash-talk Jokic in Serbian at certain points during games to motivate the now back-to-back MVP. Cancar is the only player on the Nuggets who speaks Serbian. He’s a great teammate and an A+ locker-room presence. He’s a professional. He practices and plays hard. He’s a high IQ reserve who always knows what he’s doing on the floor. Cancar is the perfect 15th man.

But nights this one also offer a reminder of Cancar’s value. When you do need him, Cancar delivers. He’s reliable and can actually hoop. Cancar has played a role in some of the Nuggets’ most unlikely wins of the Jokic era. And that’s no accident. He plays the right way and won’t color outside the lines. He sticks to his role and understands the game. He plays pure team basketball. You can trust him.

Cancar is the only player to log minutes in both “The 7” — Denver’s win in Utah from February 2020 where the Nuggets only had seven active players — and Sunday in Dallas.

He was very solid defensively against the Mavs. Here were his two steals from Sunday.

In a game without three starters — Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray due to COVID protocols and Aaron Gordon (non-COVID illness) — the Nuggets somehow found a way. Jeff Green, a fourth starter, exited the game after just five minutes with a knee injury and didn’t return. It was a gutsy performance and an improbable win over Doncic and a Mavs team that handled Denver with ease and blew the Nuggets out two nights ago.

The Nuggets held Doncic to 22 points on 7-16 shooting and the Mavs to just 97 points overall. Bones Hyland brought the Nuggets home in the second half when he scored 21 of his career-high 29 points. Michael Porter Jr. hit the game-winning 3 from the right wing with 55.2 seconds left in the fourth to put Denver up 98-97.

It was the perfect setting for the Nuggets’ role player to step up and perform. Brown, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Christian Braun all did their part defensively on Doncic. DeAndre Jordan pulled down 17 rebounds. Zeke Nnaji contributed for a second-straight game.

It was also the perfect setting for Cancar to have a moment, and he was integral in the Nuggets improving to 10-6 on the season.

Practice does make perfect.

“Once I knew he was going to shoot it, I knew he was going to make it,” Brown said. “So I was like, ‘I’ll take it out and get the assist.'”

Author

Harrison Wind is the Denver Nuggets beat reporter for DNVR Nuggets. The University of Colorado alum grew up in Boulder and has covered the Nuggets for the last three seasons. You can hear him every weekday on the DNVR Nuggets podcast. Follow Harrison on Twitter - @HarrisonWind

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