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Kawhi Leonard propels Spurs to ugly win against Nuggets, 99-91

It wasn't a pretty game but the Spurs escaped with a much-needed win to keep up with the rest of the West.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Spurs started the game with arguably their best possible defensive lineup on the floor, as Tiago Splitter made his second start of the season and Cory Joseph filled in for an injured Tony Parker. That left few viable options for the Nuggets to exploit. Arron Afflalo carried them offensively early, as Danny Green struggled with his physicality, but the Spurs did a great job of containing everyone else.

On the other end of the floor the starters missed Tony Parker's shot creation dearly and found themselves on a six-point deficit thanks to an anemic offensive output. The difference wasn't bigger because the Nuggets couldn't exploit the Spurs' sloppiness since they kept coughing up the ball themselves. The bench came in and led by Manu Ginobili moved the ball better but neither team was playing up to their level on offense. The Nuggets' lead was only two at the end of an ugly first quarter, 22-20.

Since the execution wasn't sharp for either team, the easy points proved to be key. Fortunately, the Spurs toned down their turnovers and upped their energy level in the second quarter. As a result, they had the edge on second chance points (seven to zero), fastbreak points (six to three) and on free throws (ten to zero). A 12-0 run ensued, as the Nuggets couldn't count on Afflalo, now defended by Leonard, to rescue them. Denver only managed 12 third quarter points, allowing San Antonio to go into the break up 11, 45-34.

The Spurs started the third quarter playing better and got their lead up to 17. The Nuggets, who were on the second game of a back-to-back, looked ready to fold for a while. It seemed the Spurs had smelled blood and were ready to blow it wide open by going to the rim as often as possible, probably hoping to get enough separation to rest the stars before a SEGABABA of their own in Portland on Monday. But the threes started falling for Denver and allowed the Nuggets to trim the deficit and go into the final period down only 10, 71-61.

Brian Shaw realized that his team had no shot at pulling off the upset by trying to match what the Spurs were doing so he decided to get experimental. For a while in the fourth, he went extra small, with Nate Robinson, Ty Lawson, Arron Afflalo, Alonzo Gee and Wilson Chandler playing together. The gamble threw the Spurs off their rhythm and prevented them from stretching the lead and putting the game out of reach.

When Tim Duncan checked back in Shaw had to adjust but decided to go with rookie Jusuf Nurkic at center instead of starter Timofey Mozgov. All the tinkering had a positive effect for Denver, as they got as close to five. The game continued to be extremely sloppy and ugly but that benefited the more spry and physical Nuggets. Another deflating loss to a sub .500 team didn't seem out of the question for San Antonio.

Fortunately, this time they reacted on time to stopped the comeback attempt. Manu Ginobili hit a huge three-pointer up five with 2:27 to go that drained the energy from the Nuggets' crowd and killed the team's momentum. The defense held on and after a Joseph layup and some free throws the Spurs escaped Denver with the win to up their record to 17-7.

Game notes

  • Kawhi Leonard was phenomenal tonight. He was an assist shy of the elusive 5x5, finishing the night with 18 points, eight rebounds, four assists, five steals and six blocks. There were stretches were Leonard was everywhere defensively. His shot selection wasn't stellar but it would be nitpicky to focus on that after such a fantastic performance.
  • With Parker out, the team needed Duncan and Ginobili to lead the way and they did, combining for 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. They didn't dominate -- Kawhi took care of that -- but they provided a steadying presence and made timely contributions.
  • Tiago Splitter started the game and immediately reminded everyone just how important he can be for this team. In a little under 20 minutes he had 11 points, six rebounds and three assists while playing typically great defense. Missed you, Tiago!
  • Cory Joseph continues to fill in admirably for Tony Parker. Thirteen points on seven shots to go with three assists and a couple of boards and some remarkable defense on Arron Afflalo on switches. As Patty Mills' return date approaches the decision of who backs Parker up, an easy one not long ago, could prove to be a hard one for Pop to make.
  • Aron Baynes had another productive game. Since the Nuggets played small a lot he only saw nine minutes of playing time but he scored six points -- including a thunderous dunk -- and pulled down two rebounds. He could prove important on Monday against Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman, especially if Duncan, who was on the court 32 minutes, sits that one out.
  • Danny Green didn't have a good game, scoring-wise, so it was extra helpful for the Spurs that Marco Belinelli did. Marco had a couple of bad misses but he got himself to the line eight times to help the Spurs build a +14 differential in free throws that was as big a reason as any as to why they won.
  • I need to see a great Boris Diaw game soon or I'll officially start to worry. Bobo's outside shot has abandoned him yet he's attempting more three-pointers per minute than he's ever had in his career. I've rationalized his struggles by telling myself that he's saving his energy for later on but at some point we need to see at least more flashes of the amazing play from last season. Against the Nuggets Matt Bonner got some of Boris' minutes and that was fine by me. That's not supposed to happen.
  • The Nuggets are so hard to peg. There's talent and depth in that roster and they are not far behind in the race for the eighth spot in the West. There are also a lot of bad mid-sized contracts and players with limited upside. Should they stay the course or make a trade thinking about the playoffs? Should they blow it up? I'm leaning towards the second option but could be talked out of it. It must be strange being a Nuggets fan right now.

Vine of the night

Kawhi Leonard, in all his awesome two-way glory.

Up next

The Spurs will play against the Trail Blazers on Monday. It will be the 9th time they've played Portland in the second game of a back-to-back in the past five seasons. It's a tradition by now.