9:30 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Nuggets -5.5, Over/Under: 211.5
After four games, we’re all squared away at two games apiece as the Denver Nuggets host the San Antonio Spurs for what figures to be a crucial Game Five of their First Round Series from Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. Given their lengthy Postseason Pedigree, is it of any surprise that the Spurs (48-34, 7th in Western Conference) would be the lone lower-seeded team in the stacked Western Cofnerence to provide a stiff challenge for a favored opponent? After all, this is the twenty-second consecutive appearance in the Playoffs for San Antonio, which is by far and away the longest such streak of any major professional sporting franchise in the United States. Indeed, Gregg Popovich & Co. are at it again, taking a younger (and more talented) team to task, proving without a shadow of a doubt that coaching still makes a world of difference in the game of basketball, particularly at this advanced stage. Throughout this Series, his charges have given their opposite number fits by simply dictating tempo; in essence, they’ve forced Denver to come down to their level for large stretches of play, with an average of just 92.4 Possession per 48 Minutes, which if you’re wondering is well below the Pace that they operated at during the Regular Season, where they logged 98.3 Possessions per 48 Minutes, which was statistically speaking, the eighth-slowest in the league. By and large, this was how they beat the Nuggets in Game One (101-96), controlled the action for nearly all of Game Two (105-114), and thoroughly frustrated them throughout Game Three (118-108). Throughout his lengthy tenure with the franchise, Popovich has placed an emphasis on execution and quality over quantity, which is part of the reason as to why they’ve been so successful in the Postseason for over two decades. Through the first four entries of this Series, the Spurs have averaged 106.8 Points on 47.5% shooting from the field, including 35.3% from beyond the arc, while dishing out 21.8 Assists in comparison to committing just 9.0 Turnovers. However, where they’ve really made things difficult for the Nuggets has been on the offensive glass, averaging 11.8 Offensive Rebounds per Game with a solid Percentage of 26.9% (Plus-4.4%), and which of course leads to easier Second-Chance Points, and from the Charity Stripe, where they’ve 83-of-109 Free-Throws (76.1%), or in other words, seventeen more than their opponent. There’s really no easier way of slowing a game down than by getting to the Free-Throw Line, which is something that this team has managed with ease, attempting a Single on 24.6% of their Field Goal Attempts (Plus-5.9%), which represents a significant increase from the 19.4% they registered during the Regular Season (17th Overall). In his first Playoff Run with the franchise since arriving via trade back in the Summer, DeMar DeRozan (21.2 PTS, 48.1% FG, 15.6% 3FG, 6.0 REB, 6.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 19.6 PER) has exceeded expectations, averaging 23.3 Points on an efficient 49.3% shooting, feasting in the midrange area of the floor, which has allowed him to get to the Free-Throw Line at will, netting 27-of-31 attempts (87.1%), accounting or 28.4% of his team’s Free-Throw Attempts. Furthermore, he’s added 7.0 Rebounds, 4.5 Assists, and 1.3 Steals to what has been a stellar all-around performance in this Series.
After flexing their muscles in Game Three, the Spurs allowed their opponent to flip the script on them in Game Four, where it was obvious from the opening tip as to who the more physical, aggressive team was. Needless to say, it was NOT the hosts, who saw a thirteen-game winning streak against the Nuggets at AT&T Center come to an end in the 103-117 defeat. Despite establishing a twelve-point lead at the end of the First Quarter, the home side were thoroughly outplayed over the ensuing two frames in which they were outscored a decisive 69-45. On the night, the factors that had been working in San Antonio’s favor were nowhere to be found, for the advantages in Offensive Rebounding (11-11) and Free-Throw Shooting (24-22) were basically a wash, while defensively they failed to turn their opponent over, forcing just Seven Turnovers. Three-Point Shooting is continuing to be an issue for Popovich’s charges, who knocked down just 5-of-17 attempts from beyond the arc (29.4%) and were outscored by a whopping Thirty-Points. LaMarcus Aldridge (21.3 PTS, 51.9% FG, 9.2 REB, 2.4 AST, 0.5 STL, 1.3 BLK, 22.9 PER), who was appearing in his Thirty-Fifth Playoff Game for the Spurs, led the way with Twenty-Four Points on 10-of-18 shooting from the floor (55.6%), along with Nine Rebounds, an Assist, Two Steals, and a Block, while the aforementioned DeRozan finished with Nineteen Points on 7-of-13 shooting (53.8%), Five Rebounds, and Five Assists, before ultimately being ejected for tossing the basketball in frustration past a Referee with Five Minutes left to play in the affair. 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), who has been HUGE in each of San Antonio’s two wins in this Series, was quiet after exploding for Thirty-Six Points on 15-of-21 shooting (71.4%), Five Rebounds, Five Assists, Three Steals, and a Block in Game Three, instead mustering just Eight Points on 3-of-8 shooting (37.5%), Four Rebounds, and Five Assists on Saturday Night. In many ways, the Sophomore Guard has served as barometer for their success in this Series, averaging 26.0 Points on 71.0% shooting from the field, 4.0 Rebounds, 5.0 Assists, and 2.0 Steals in their two victories in comparison to 12.5 Points on 52.6% shooting, 4.0 Rebounds, 2.5 Assists, and 0.0 Steals in their two losses. Furthermore, his Plus-Minus in the pair of wins has been a collective Plus-32 opposed to Minus-28 in the couple of defeats.
Meanwhile, though many have lauded praise on the young Nuggets (54-28, 2nd in Western Conference) for their growth into the Second Seed in the mighty Western Conference, this particular Series against the Spurs has thus far served as a test of their true maturation. And after four heated confrontations, it appears that this young team still has much to learn. Yes, Denver’s story has ben one of the many fascinating plots in this 2018-2019 Season, with their renaissance returning them to the Postseason after a five-year hiatus. However, there are still many questions to be answered about Mike Malone and his charges, for despite spending roughly one-third of the campaign in First Place out West, this team struggled down the stretch, going 15-10 after the All-Star Break, including a disappointing 5-6 in their final eleven outings. Furthermore, while posting the league’s best home record (34-7 at Pepsi Center), they were a sub-.500 outfit one the road (20-21), which is another telltale sign of a young team still learning to win. If you take one quick look at the Playoff Field out West then you’ll ultimately come to the conclusion that this is clearly the most inexperienced group, even less so than the Eighth-Seeded Los Angeles Clippers, who at the very least are led by veteran Head Coach Doc Rivers, who has one of the lengthiest resumes in the Playoffs. So with that said, it would be hard to find a worse opponent than the aforementioned Spurs, who in addition to being guided by the winningest Head Coach in the history of the sport, play a brand of basketball that is far more conducive for the Postseason. As we detailed earlier, the major reason for this Series being tied at two games apiece is due to the Nuggets inexperience at this stage, and succumbing to their opponent’s style of play. While this is hardly the run-and-gun Denver of years past, they would still like to play faster than they’ve had thus far in this Series; Malone’s troops actually operated at a Pace slower than San Antonio’s during the Regular Season, averaging just 97.7 Possessions per 48 Minutes (27th Overall), but oftentimes looked lost when playing THIS slow. As a result, their strength is playing to that of their opponent, and the only way out is to speed things up, which they’ve proven that they’re not necessarily comfortable doing, and it’s shown throughout this Series. The numbers don’t really tell the whole story, for the Nuggets have averaged 108.8 Points on a solid 46.7% shooting from the field, while burying the Spurs from beyond the arc, netting 41.1% of their attempts, and outscoring them by an average margin of 16.5 Points per Game. They’ve also moved the basketball well, dishing out 27.5 Assists in comparison to committing just 8.8 Turnovers. However, the difference has proven to be in Transition, where in their two wins, they’ve broken their opponent’s vice-grip, averaging 18.0 Fast Break Points opposed to just 9.5 Fast Break Points in their two losses. Basically, it may not be in their nature to push the tempo, but they must do so nevertheless, for it’s quickly proving to be their lone outlet to victory.
With that in mind, there have been signs that the Nuggets are coming to that realization; after scoring ZERO Fast Break Points in Game One’s defeat, the Northwest Division Champions have totaled, Twenty-One, Nineteen, and most recently, Fifteen, in the following three contests. There’s a very real sense that that may be about as good as it’s going to get for Denver, for with San Antonio rarely turning over the Basketball, and besting them on the offensive glass, while both teams have been getting to the Charity Stripe, opportunities to get out and run are rather thin. So after getting punked in Game Three, Malone implored his side to do the only thing left to do: roll up their collective sleeves and get physical. And that’s precisely what they did, showing a considerable degree of growth and maturity in going into a hostile environment, where in addition to losing thirteen consecutive Regular Season outings, haven’t enjoyed any success in the Playoffs since 2007. As a team, the visitors shot 44.9% from the field, though bombarded the home side from the perimeter, mercilessly knocking down 15-of-31 attempts (48.4%), while holding their own on the glass (45 REB, 11 OREB) and from the Charity Stripe (22-of-24, 91.7%), while assisting on Twenty-Five of their Forty Field Goals, and committing just Seven Turnovers. Five different players scored in Double-Figures, led by 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 nearly posted his second Triple-Double of this Series, with Twenty-Nine Points on 10-of-22 shooting (45.5%), Twelve Rebounds, and Eight Assists, while 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) added another Twenty-Four Points on 8-of-14 shooting (57.1%), including 3-of-5 from downtown (60.0%), Two Rebounds, and Six Assists. In their first Playoffs together, it’s very much been a baptism by fire for Jokic and Murray, with the former posting averages of 20.5 Points, 11.8 Rebounds, and 9.3 Assists despite being subject to physical defense and swarming double-teams, while the latter has overcome a slow start to log 17.8 Points on 42.6% shooting overall, including 36.8% from beyond the arc. In an inspired move, Malone made a key adjustment in Game Four, dropping veteran Swingman Will Barton (11.5 PTS, 40.2% FG, 34.2% 3FG, 4.6 REB, 2.9 AST, 0.4 STL, 0.5 BLK, 11.0 PER) from the Starting Five, and allowing him to come off the Bench. After starting Thirty-Eight of Forty-Three Games in the Regular Season, Barton has struggled mightily in this Series, averaging just 8.5 Points on 29.3% shooting from the field, though responded on Saturday with what was clearly his best performance, totaling Twelve Points, Four Rebounds, and Three Assists, while nailing all three of his attempts from three in just over Fifteen Minutes of action.