Game #71 Recap: Spurs gift one to Nuggets 115-112

"If I hit all my threes, we win right? ... right? ... What about 6 of 8?"

San Antonio went for a season sweep of the Denver Nuggets without their captain and defensive anchor, Tim Duncan. On a night most expected a Spurs loss due to this circumstance and the difficulty of playing the hottest team in the West in their arena, the Spurs instead came out and put on a shooting display that propelled them to lead for 40 minutes of game time. Denver managed to stay in contention by having their own display of excellent outside-shooting, the assist of a double digit advantage in free-throws, and the occasional Spurs error that kept the point spread in single digits. Without the GOAT PUFF posting up to slow a late Nuggets scoring surge, the Spurs game-long habit of giving away easy points caught up with them during a six minute stretch to open the 4th quarter.

This was an entertaining game. Raise your hand if you predicted a difficult night for the best NBA team? If so, you should be thrilled to see such effort even while mixed with strange mistakes. Like a missed dunk from Blair. And a missed layup from Blair. These second half moments stand out, yet count as much as the rookie Splitter blowing a layup in the first half. This is to say, for as hot as the shooting was there were many more points earned but not deposited.

When I signed up to recap this game, I was looking forward to a writing piece light on Spurs-Nuggets now and heavy on playoff preview. My expectation was that with eleven games remaining, now is the time to think big picture about possible first round opponents, which at the time Denver looked as though it might fall to the #8 seed. To the credit of the new Nuggets and their suddenly chipper head coach, they've won their way up to middle of the pack status, which in the West means you're darn good. I'll have to set aside my playoff research for another day, as this game, though not a needed win for our Spurs, is deserving of its own spotlight and dissection.

Quarter 1
Boos for Manu (guess they figured crying never worked) sparks a 13-3 Spurs lead. Spurs are attacking the paint as Denver has no size to defend the rim. RJ posts up his defender before driving by him and missing a layup; still, I like this from RJ. Splitter misses a short hook and put-back, then Dyess does the same; failed easy points by the bigs has happened too often the past week. A few moments after Mike Tirico tells us that George Karl felt that J.R. Smith just played his smartest game, JR forces up a contested jumper and misses, then gambles for a steal which ignites a Spurs fast-break that ended with a BLAAAIIIRR offensive rebound dunk. Thanks for not getting back on defense, "smart" JR.
Spurs passing is smooth compared to the one-on-one Nuggets. Defense is better than decent, but 14 FTs by the home team (not a typo) allows Denver to only trail 34-24. This is the third consecutive game that San Antonio has had a quarter where they outscored Denver by double digits.

Quarter 2
In the span of 150 seconds, Matt Bonner made a 3-pointer, got two steals, and blocked a shot. Return of the Red Rocket! Sadly, this was the climax of his night. Spurs' quickness on defense is giving the Nuggets some issues, and the lead balloons to fourteen. It was still double digits by mid quarter before some Spurs sloppiness fed the Nuggets' fast-break. Lazy defense by the Spurs allowed Harrington two wide open 3s out of timeouts; this put him into rhythm with a confidence that would not fade in this game.
Spurs lose the quarter 35-40 but still lead at the half 69-64. Rebounds are near even, each team has played nine players, and bench scoring is high for both teams (33-30 favoring Denver). Spurs are out-shooting their opponent 56%-53% and have two more made 3-pointers. FTs and fast-break points are why Denver is only down single digits and, a one-sided whistle happy crew aside, both of these stats where created by a combination of Spurs turnovers and guards (looking at you, Hill) not getting back on defense when Manu or Tony attacks the rim. Free points missed, free points given away. In one half, we're talking an additional ten point differential.

Quarter 3
It should surprise no one to know that the Spurs opened the new half playing defense. RJ made a corner-3 and his Rage filled aggressiveness led to FT attempts. Splitter went 2/2 from the FT line and the lead was nine. A sweet pass from Blair gave Hill a corner-3 that pushed the lead back to double digits. A minute later, Hill hits a long-2 on a called play to again go up ten. Please, please, please let this be the return of Georgeous. This had once again settled back into the Spurs leading by 9+ points, a range where most of this game existed, and then the bench had a letdown. Blair missed an uncontested dunk which became a Ty Lawson fast break bucket. Four point swing and lead down to five. Manu misses a running 3-pointer after a Blair block, Bonner misses a wide open one as well, and we're off to the final quarter with the halftime lead reduced, 93-90. While the Denver shooting percentage has held at 53%, the Spurs' has fallen to 49%.Certainly not because of Denver defense.


Quarter 4

Much like the victory over the Mavs, the Spurs opened the final quarter unable to extend a lead, a six minute period of time where a headlock could've been applied simply by making open shots. Note that the defense was solid during this stretch. One made FG over this time, a Bonner layup sandwiched between two Neal 3s, put the Spurs down for the first time since the opening minutes. Included in this stretch was another missed layup, this time by Blair. This was the point in the game where Duncan's absence was most pronounced. Harrington was still hitting everything. Felton was hitting his mid-range jumper as our defenders continued to go under the screen. Bonner learned that this ref crew did not like red-heads. Two laugh worthy moments did occur: after the first possession of the quarter gave Denver a +11 on FTA, the Denver crowd begins to boo the referees for calling Felton for foolishly reaching in on Manu above the 3-point line. This was dumb defense, fouling in open space far away from the hoop, and the crowd is upset? Hilarious. A few minutes later, McDyess blocks Harrington leading to the Latest. Whistle. Ever. is blown. Okay, we get it. We're not supposed to win tonight. Spurs defense is in the penalty at the 7:35 mark.

Offensively our squad executed the final five minutes and turned a four point deficit into a back and forth tie game. One sequence saw Dyess and Neal combine for three offensive rebounds, ending in a Neal layup. They went down fighting as though they needed this game to earn a higher playoff seed. For all the mistakes and whistles up to this point, the game was lost on two sequences: tied at 107, Harrington finally misses a shot, but he missed so badly that the lone Nuggets player amongst a group of Spurs was able to fall on the ball and call timeout. Yes, fall on it, as it banged so hard off the backboard that no player could catch the rebound. Out of that T.O., Felton made a 3-pointer. Secondly, tied at 112 with one minute remaining, the Spurs forced a miss and had possession. Unfortunately, they didn't actually run a play. No player or ball movement. Guys looked tired, and if so then a timeout should've been called. The possession ended with Tony forcing up a long two-point FG. A score there and the good guys likely walk away victors. As it was, Chandler pushed off before making a shot, then Manu (correctly) went for the win by shooting a three. I agree with this idea, even if perhaps Neal would've been the better candidate on this night, because no one in black & silver wanted overtime to start a road trip that will have little to no impact on the Spurs' playoff fortunes.

Overview

Much of this game had a playoff feel, as both teams brought energy and aggression to their play. I certainly hope that such officiating will not be on display come playoff time, as the inconsistent whistles only distracts from the game and flow of a series. To get it out of the way now, I'll say only this: I actually did not have a problem with 90% of the fouls called on the Spurs. I don't like games being called that closely, but if that's how it is then you "must adjust" as Hubie Brown tells us. Where I took issue was the ticky-tack touch calls favoring the Denver end of the floor, while Manu and his mates took equivalent contact without a call. Either call it tight on both ends or let both teams play. That is all. The disparity is most accurately shown in the box score, where the Nuggets held a +13 FT attempt advantage. Visually, this was best represented in the 4th quarter, where Antonio McDyess blocked a shot by K-Mart, had the rebound and was ready to go on offense when the latest whistle I have ever witnessed was blown. I actually thought it was a fan being unsportsmanlike. That summed up the zebras for this night.

Did you know?
- In winning the first three match-ups with Denver, the Spurs out-shot the Nuggets in each game, making 52%, 52.6%, and 51.5% respectively. Tonight, only 43% of their shots due to poor second half shooting after making 53% in the first half. Imagine that percentage if Duncan had played.
- The team that won the first quarter lost all four games in this regular season series.
- In the two most recent match-ups, the Spurs made 50% of their 3-pointers in each game, a combined 25/50. Tonight, a more than respectable 13/32 for 40.6%, a percentage that fell after the final two misses. Getting great looks from distance will not be an issue should the Spurs meet the Nuggets in the playoffs.

Where the game was lost:
- The hidden points. Spurs had the last shot(s) of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th quarters, missing all of them. They also struggled to get points out of timeouts, a rarity with this group, as many second half possessions after a commercial break ended with a turnover or forced shot. Denver was superior in this all game, scoring on their final shot attempts of the 2-4 quarters, and creating open shots out of timeouts. This was most noticeable on two 2Q occasions, when Harrington had designed plays that gave him open 3s. He made both and never hesitated with his shot again.

Of note:
- Gary Neal had a career high 25 points on 9/15 shooting.
- Though there are plenty of specific moments to pick apart the Spurs' defense, the Nuggets came into this game the third best 3-point shooting team and first in free-throw attempts. They're obviously not easy for any team to defend.

Feel better:
- Spurs: 57-14. Nuggets: 43-29. Spurs win season series 3-1.
- In the past 21 seasons, the Nuggets have made the playoffs on 10 occasions. Your San Antonio Spurs have eliminated them on four of those occasions by a combined record of 14-2. That includes 6-0 in Denver.
- This is a possible second round match-up. Spurs are clearly the better team if both are fully healthy.

Three Stars:
- Manu: 20-PTS 4-REB 2-AST 1-STL. He was incredible early, took the potential game winner with his usual confidence, and was deserving of a few more trips to the FT line. Had that happened, he'd be the first star and his team would be the winner.
- Tony: 19-PTS 2-REB 5-AST 1 BLK. Even with the quickness of Lawson, Denver has no answer for Parker. He made some timely and clever shots in the paint, and would've had a near double-double if more open shots had been made.
- Neal: 25-PTS 5-REB 6/8 on threes. Came off the bench hot, scored a career high in points, continues to show his off-the-dribble shot, and perhaps should've been given a chance at the game winner. Pop must be keeping that play hidden for a game that really matters.

Up Next:
Gotta love the Western Conference. A trip to Portland, where this much scoring is unlikely but would certainly be enough to win.

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