9:00 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Spurs -4, Over/Under: 209.5
After an upset in the Opener was followed by a major rally in Game Two, what will Game Three have in store for the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs as their First Round Series shifts to AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas? One of the most surprising teams in the league this season, the Second-Seeded Nuggets (54-28, 2nd in Western Conference) have exhibited substantial growth in 2018-2019, proving to be a testament to what good ol’ fashioned drafting and developing can mean for a young team. A year ago, Denver found narrowly missed the Playoffs, finding themselves on the short end of what was effectively a One-Game Playoff in the Regular Season Finale. What a difference a year can make, for Mike Malone’s charges stormed out of the gates this year, owning a 37-15 record as of early February, spending much of the term in pole position in the Western Conference. Nevertheless, as the usual suspects out West got healthier and climbed the ladder, this team succumbed began to succumb to injuries and inexperience, going just 15-10 after the All-Star Break. However, they managed to capture the Two Seed in the end, setting up a First Round matchup with the San Antonio Spurs, who have long been a fixture in the Postseason. While this series doesn’t quite fit the headline of Old versus New, (for after all, the Spurs are younger than they’ve been), it’s very much a case of the Old Guard squaring off with the newer assembly, and in Game One, the former certainly got one over on the latter. Despite the raucous crowd at the Pepsi Center where they went 34-7, establishing the best home mark in the league, the Nuggets trailed throughout the 96-101 defeat, though they got close on a number of occasions, they simply couldn’t get over the hump. It was a poor shooting performance for the hosts, who knocked down just 42.0% of their attempts from the field, including a dismal 6-of-28 from beyond the arc (21.4%), and 16-of-24 from the Charity Stripe (66.7%). Malone’s troops were at times confounded by San Antonio’s defense, particularly All-Star Center Nikola Jokic (20.1 PTS, 51.1% FG, 30.7% 3FG, 10.8 REB, 7.3 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.7 BLK, 26.3 PER), who despite being the subject of relentless double-teams, registered a Triple-Double, becoming the first to do so in his Playoff Debut since one LeBron James back in 2006. Jokic managed just Ten Points on 4-of-9 shooting from the floor (44.4%), including 0-of-3 from downtown (0.0%), though made up for it in other areas, totaling Fourteen Rebounds and Assists apiece. The sharpshooting Backcourt of Jamal Murray (18.2 PTS, 43.7% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 4.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.4 BLK, 16.0 PER) and Gary Harris (12.9 PTS, 42.4% FG, 33.9% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.0 STL, 12.2 PER) combined to score Thirty-Seven Points on 15-of-36 shooting (41.7%), despite failing to make much of an impact from long-range, netting a poor 1-of-9 from distance (11.1%). This is where Denver must show significant improvement in this Series, for if San Antonio is to continue doubling down on Jokic and leaving their shooters open, then the likes of Murray and Harris must make them pay. During the season, this outfit was roughly middle of the pack in terms of Three-Point Shooting, ranking Eighteenth in Three-Point Makes (11.0), Sixteenth in Attempts (31.4), and Seventeenth in Percentage (35.1%). With that said, the more alarming number from Saturday’s Loss was Zero, as in Zero Fast Break Points. The hosts fell into the trap of allowing their opponent to dictate the tempo of play, and while the Nuggets hardly push matters at the rate of previous incarnations (108.9 Possessions per 48 Minutes, 27th Overall in Pace), this capitulation all but negates that aforementioned advantage the altitude affords them. However, after trailing by as many as Twelve Points in the Fourth Quarter, the home side managed to rally back and cut the deficit to one in the waning minutes, but when trailing by three, Murray allowed the basketball to be stolen around midcourt with 1.3 seconds left to play, sealing the loss.
After being defeated in Game One of this Series, there is a strong argument that can be made that the Nuggets saved their season in Tuesday Night’s 114-105 victory over the Spurs, for heading to San Antonio down 0-2 would be the least ideal of scenarios for the West’s No. Two Seed. And for nearly all of that affair, it appeared like that would indeed be their fate, but a Fourth Quarter explosion saved their collective hide, and may just hint at things to come. Trailing by as many as Nineteen Points in the Second Quarter and 75-82 heading into the final stanza, Denver finally seemed to figure out what San Antonio was doing to them, and it started with the aforementioned Murray, who absolutely went OFF. 0-of-8 from the field through the first three periods of play, the young Shooting Guard entered the zone, knocking down the litany of opportunities that he missed in Game One, netting 8-of-9 attempts overall, en route to Twenty-Four Points on 8-of-17 shooting (47.1%), including 2-of-3 from downtown (66.7%). All in all, the home side owned the final frame of play, besting the visitors 39-23 over that span. As a team, the hosts fared far better from distance than they did on Saturday Night, draining a much-improved 10-of-24 attempts (41.7%), outscoring the visiting side by Fifteen Points in that regard. They also managed to finally speed up the tempo, besting their counterpart 21-6 in Fast Break Points, representing a major improvement on the zero points that they scored in transition in the Series Opener. Four different players scored in double-figures, with Jokic nearly capturing another Triple-Double (21 PTS, 13 REB, 8 AST), while Harris and Paul Millsap (12.6 PTS, 48.4% FG, 36.5% 3FG, 7.2 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.8 BLK, 17.9 PER) accounted for Twenty-Three and Twenty Points respectively, with the former nailing 3-of-6 from three (50.0%), and the latter offering Seven Rebounds, and an Assist, Steal, and Block apiece. The victory snapped a seven-game home losing streak to the Spurs in the Playoffs, who had also defeated them in seven of their previous twelve meetings overall.
Meanwhile, for the twenty-second consecutive year, the Spurs (48-34, 7th in Western Conference) are back in the Playoffs, extending the most obscene of streaks in professional sports in this country. While this particular group is hardly the juggernaut of past incarnations, San Antonio remains a worthy opponent capable of besting more-favored opponents, which was certainly the case in Game One of their First Round Series with the Nuggets. But before we get into that, let’s take a moment to review juts how they got to this point, the Postseason, which has long been their home away from home for over two decades now. Needless to say, the 2018-2019 campaign did NOT get off to a good start, with Gregg Popovich’s charges stumbling out of the gate to a disappointing 11-14 record, marred by injury, particularly in the form of third-year Point Guard Dejounte Murray, who unfortunately tore his ACL shortly before the term began, robbing them of the young man groomed to be their floor general. So Popovich and his Staff had to adjust their strategy early, all the while acclimating DeMar DeRozan (21.2 PTS, 48.1% FG, 15.6% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 6.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 19.6 PER) to the Rotation; San Antonio acquired the All-Star Shooting Guard from the Toronto Raptors in the blockbuster deal that sent the mercurial Kawhi Leonard north of the Border. While some questioned whether or not DeRozan was a proper fit for the Spurs’ efficient attack, Popovich quickly assuaged any and all concerns, by further tailoring the gameplan around the midrange dynamo’s talents. In hindsight, the trade could in all likelihood go down as the best thing to happen to the 29-Year Old’s career; DeRozan enjoyed his most efficient shooting season since he was a Rookie (48.1% FG), while posting career-highs in both Rebounds (6.0) and Assists (6.2). So is it any wonder that he and his new team would settle in and right the proverbial ship? After that initial slow start, they won Twenty-One of their next Thirty Contests, and promptly went 15-8 after the All-Star Break, carrying a good degree of momentum into the Postseason. And that momentum saw them take Game One at Denver in surprising fashion, as Popovich authored a masterclass in coaching, while DeRozan lead a balanced attack that featured five different players in double-figures. As mentioned earlier, the visiting side relentlessly double-teamed Nikola Jokic, forcing the Big to be far more of a facilitator than a scorer, while slowing the pace down and getting back defensively, snuffing out any chances of transition offense for the Nuggets. Despite a rough shooting night (6-of-19 FG, 15 PTS), LaMarcus Aldridge (21.3 PTS, 51.9% FG, 9.2 REB, 2.4 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.3 BLK, 22.9 PER) was instrumental in vexing Jokic, while the aforementioned DeRozan totaled Seventeen Points on 6-of-17 shooting (35.3%), though added Twelve Rebounds, Six Assists, and a Block in the win. While the two All-Star struggled from the field, the rest of the team, quite frankly, did not, with the Supporting Cast knocking down a scorching 28-of-47 attempts overall (59.6%), including 7-of-14 from downtown (50.0%). Veteran Forward Rudy Gay (13.7 PTS, 50.4% FG, 40.2% 3FG, 6.8 REB, 2.6 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 17.5 PER) had a big night off the bench with Fourteen Points on 6-of-9 shooting (66.7%), including 2-of-3 from deep (66.7%), while Sophomore Point Guard, Derrick White (9.9 PS, 47.9% FG, 33.8% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 14.8 PER), added Sixteen Points on 7-of-10 shooting (70.0%), with that HUGE Steal of Murray that effectively ended the affair.
Speaking of stealing, for large stretches of their affair on Tuesday Night, it appeared that the Spurs would indeed steal another victory from the Nuggets on the road, which would have made very interesting heading back to Southern Texas. Through two games, this Series has proven to be very much a masterclass taught by Popovich, who has figuratively bent Malone over his knee and taken him to task. Just as they had in Game One, San Antonio slowed the action to a crawl in the second chapter of this story, running up a lead of as many as Nineteen Points in the process. However, unlike their triumph on Saturday Night, they were unable to sustain this strategy over the duration of four quarters, for over time the hosts began to chip away at their lead, before finally tearing the proverbial wall down in the final frame of play. As Denver exploded offensively, San Antonio flatlined, relinquishing Thirty-Nine Points courtesy of the tempo speeding up, which they unwittingly had a hand in, committing Ten Turnovers, which the home side manufactured into Fifteen Points, en route to outscoring them by fifteen in transition. Popovich’s charges shot reasonably well (45.3%), but struggled mightily from beyond the arc where they netted just 5-of-18 attempts (27.8%), with the only real silver lining being their production from the Charity Stripe, calmly knocking down 22-of-25 Free Throws (88.0%). Of course, getting to the Stripe is a great way of controlling tempo, but the majority of those attempts came through the first three stanzas, and not the last. The aforementioned duo of DeRozan and Aldridge carried the Offense, combining for over half (55) of the Spurs’ Points, shooting a cumulative 19-of-39 from the field (48.7%), though the Supporting Cast was largely invisible, connecting on just 20-of-47 from the floor (42.3%), though the aforementioned White put forth another strong showing with Seventeen Points on 7-of-11 shooting (63.6%), Four Rebounds, and a Block. The Series now shifts to AT&T Center, where San Antonio must feel confident that they can take the next two games, owning a stellar 32-9 record, and haven’t lost to Denver since 2012.