Spurs bench comeback attempt falls short, Nuggets win 96-86

USA TODAY Sports

A diminished Spurs squad stepped into the thin-aired Pepsi Center undermanned and out of breath, seeking to maintain a slim lead in the West over the Oklahoma City Thunder while returning to health. Despite resting it's starters for most of the second half and the entirety of the fourth quarter, the Spurs made it interesting in the end before falling to the energized Nuggets.

Both the Spurs and the Nuggets came in to this game having not played since Saturday. San Antonio was 5-0 on 3+ days of rest prior to this game, and Denver was 3-0, riding a 20 game home winning streak. Something had to give, and unfortunately for the Spurs, the healthier team came out on top.

The Game

Each team was well rested for this game, but the fruits of time off presented themselves differently for each team in the first quarter. The Spurs came out looking fresh, hitting 6 of their first 8 shots. The Nuggets, however, looked extremely rusty, missing their first seven. The Spurs raced out to an early 14-0 lead on the back of Tim Duncan, who the Nuggets consistently left open on the pick-and-pop despite his continued efficiency from his spots.

All good things must come to an end, however, and the Spurs’ bench could not keep up with the fast paced Nuggets. The Spurs finished the quarter with a lineup of Gary Neal, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph, Matt Bonner, and DeJuan Blair. Not surprisingly, the Nuggets closed the gap through several big blocks by JaVale McGee and the ensuing fast break opportunities. The first quarter ended 18-11, Spurs, with the injured teams both showing how the loss of their primary scorers and facilitators has nearly exhausted their team offensive abilities.

The second quarter was more of the same from the Spurs bench. Gary Neal continued to look particularly bad, which was disappointing considering the upward trajectory he has been on for the last couple of games. The Spurs just couldn’t initiate their offense with the second team on the floor, repeatedly taking poor shots late into the clock and making some boneheaded plays, including a Cory Joseph foul on a Corey Brewer triple for a four point play. Both teams exhibited sloppy play throughout the second, but the Nuggets closed the first quarter gap and led by one at the half, 38-37.

The Spurs starters returned to the floor to begin the 3rd, and managed to build a small lead by hitting 6 of their first 7 shots. The Spurs spread the ball early, and all but Nando De Colo put points on the board. Tim Duncan played the entire third quarter, but did not have much impact, taking only 3 shots, two of which were blocked in successive efforts by JaVale McGee and Wilson Chandler. Duncan tallied 3 points in the quarter, and subsequently did not reenter the game. Wilson Chandler heated up early in the third, and maintained an elevated level of play throughout the quarter, shooting 5-6 to score 12 points in the quarter, capped off by an emphatic slam assisted by Andre Iguodala. The Nuggets began to pull away late against the Spurs bench and an ineffective Duncan, leading 69-63 at the end of the third.

With Duncan and the starters sitting to start the fourth, Denver completely took over. Looking energized and focused, the Nuggets capitalized on several Spurs turnovers and missed three pointers, cashing in on numerous fast break plays. The Spurs continued to miss, and the Nuggets' lead ballooned to 19 with 8:07 remaining in the quarter. Appearing all but defeated, the Spurs bench mounted a bit of a comeback on the heels of an aggressive Gary Neal, closing the deficit to just 5 with 1:21 to go, but they unfortunately fell just short at the end.

Reaction

  • This game was essentially a wash. It was an ugly loss for the Spurs, and a relatively ugly win for the Nuggets. Neither team was at full strength, with the Spurs missing Tony Parker (neck), Manu Ginobili (hamstring), Stephen Jackson (ankle), and Boris Diaw (back), and the Nuggets missing Ty Lawson (heel) and Danilo Gallinari (ACL). The Spurs continue to struggle offensively without their initiators in Parker and Ginobili, and it appears that Popovich has decided to reduce Timmy's offensive touches in the post. The Spurs have been able to ride Duncan's dominance over the past couple of weeks as Ginobili and Parker have been limited or injured, but for the sake of remaining fresh, Tim sat in the fourth and did not bear as much offensive wait as he has recently. Nonetheless, Duncan scored 17 points on 50% shooting in 27 minutes.
  • Gary Neal ended up being somewhat of a bright spot. He started very slowly, but finished well in the Spurs late game push. He finished with 17 points, though he made only 40% of his 15 attempts. Gary Neal generally performs very poorly in games with 2+games of rest, so the fact that he was able to right the sinking ship late was a positive sign.
  • The Spurs shot 4-21 from beyond the arc. That's 19%. Yuck. Danny Green remained icy, making none of his 3 attempts. Patty was 0-5 from three, Joseph was 1-7, and Neal was 3-8. This was a very poor shooting night from the guys in silver and black. Fortunately, most of the poor shooting came from guys who won't see the floor during the playoffs.
  • Assuming an 8-man playoff rotation which includes Neal over De Colo, the members of the Spurs playoff roster logged only 126 minutes in this game, as opposed to 232 for the Nuggets playoff roster. This is not the product we should expect from the Spurs assuming everyone is at least somewhat healthy come playoff time. It may be frustrating for Spurs fans right now, especially those interested in locking up the number 1 seed, but the Spurs are fielding a shell of their actual team for these last few games before the playoffs. Pop is taking no risks, reportedly vetoing Parker's pleas to play tonight.
  • The Spurs' system is very different from that Nuggets. The Spurs system absolutely depends on facilitators in the half court, and the severe dip in offense over the past couple of weeks is as good of evidence of that as any. If the Nuggets do have a system, it is basically just run, push the ball up the court, and have one of many uber-athletic players make plays. As long as their uber-athletic players are available, the Nuggets will continue to make these kinds of plays. The Spurs were missing players who are absolutely fundamental to their system. The Nuggets were able to maintain the edge just through shear athleticism and energy.

Conclusions

I was slightly disappointed that the Spurs couldn't complete the comeback in this one, until I remembered that the lineup for the entire fourth quarter consisted of Gary Neal, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph, DeJuan Blair, and either Matt Bonner or Aron Baynes. This game was clearly not indicative of what the Spurs should be capable come playoff time. While they couldn't break the Nugget's home winning streak, the Spurs did one thing very well tonight: get one day closer to being completely healthy. I cannot stress enough, that, relatively speaking, this is all that matters. Above all Spurs fans, do not panic. Hope for health, and look forward to April 20th.

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