Nowitzki made only 6-of-23 shots from the field, but made all 12 free throws. He has scored at least 20 points in 26 of his last 28 games.
Van Exel made 9-of-17 shots against his former team, while Steve Nash contributed 16 points of 5-of-8 shooting.
“I was off and Nick and Steve had a great shooting night,” Nowitzki said. “It was a great team effort. I don’t think it was a pretty win but at least we won.”
The Mavericks were shaky on defense early, allowing points in the first quarter while building just a three-point lead.
But Dallas began to pull away in the second period, opening a 65-50 halftime cushion. The Mavericks led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter before the Nuggets made a brief run in the fourth.
Dallas posted its eighth straight win over the Nuggets. But it was not easy, according to coach Don Nelson.
“They’ve given us quite a game every time we’ve played them,” Nelson said. “This was no exception. With eight minutes to go, I was a worried coach, and it forced us to execute down the stretch.”
Dallas is 15-5 since its second three-game losing streak of the season and has a 3 1/2-game lead over Sacramento and San Antonio in the battle for the NBA’s best record.
“We had to find a way to get our score in the hundreds,” said Van Exel, who was booed at the Pepsi Center. “We figured if we did that, we’d have a good chance to win.”
“Dallas just tries to outscore you,” Denver coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “I think we showed good effort against the No. 1 team in the league. Our two big problems were our transition defense and our free-throw shooting.”
The Nuggets allowed 20 fast-break points and shot just 64 percent from the line (18-of-28). They also committed 16 turnovers.
“We are improving offensively, especially in the last 25 games,” said Denver forward Juwan Howard, who scored 25 points. “We are scoring more consistently. Our problem is turnovers. If we improve there, the sky is the limit. Our turnovers hurt us, giving Dallas more and more opportunity to score.”
Coming off Saturday’s 90-80 win over Boston, the Nuggets matched the Mavericks for most the first quarter, but they could not keep up in the second. Van Exel scored 14 points in the first half and eight in the fourth quarter.
“We really needed Nick coming on big tonight,” Nelson said. “It wasn’t an easy game for anybody. He found a way to get in and get some of those tough shots to go in the basket. I put the ball in his hands down the end because Dirk wasn’t making many outside shots. Nick found a way to penetrate and made some good holes for himself and us.”
Dallas took its biggest lead, 79-62, on Eduardo Najera’s jumper with 4:59 remaining in the third quarter. The Nuggets held the Mavericks to 18 points in the period, closing within 83-72. But they got no closer than seven in the final quarter.
“They have so many weapons,” White said. “I thought we played pretty good defense and we were active, but Nowitzki is so tough and Van Exel hurt us off the bench.”