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Spurs pull away early in final quarter to win their fourth straight

It might not have been pretty to watch, but the boys in black clamped down late, reminding their fans in San Antonio what a winning streak feels like.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets came into the game still stinging from a 122-79 loss against Golden State, and early on they showed that they had no intention of hanging their heads over the previous game's embarrassment.  Denver outplayed the Spurs to start the game, pulling out to an early 10-2 lead. The San Antonio starters began the game shooting a Siberian 1-12, prompting Popovich to bump up his scheduled mid-quarter timeout a few minutes to pull everyone but Duncan in an attempt to match Denver's early energy.  With the bulk of the starters sitting, it was Aron Baynes who started off the scoring with 5 quick points to get the offense into gear.  Despite the icy start to the game, the Spurs pulled back even at 14-14 with less than three minutes left in the first frame, as Denver was similarly cold on offense.

The Spurs' rough start was epitomized in a play with 2:30 left in the first quarter where Leonard expertly anticipated and tipped away a pass from Randy Foye, leading to an open court in front of Kawhi and a beer-soaked Foye in the first row behind him.  As was typical for the start of this game, Leonard fumbled the near-breakway layup against the lone defender, but still retrieved the rebound and made a smart pass to a trailing Boris Diaw, who put in the uncontested layup.  What started as a brilliant defensive play quickly turned into a sloppy, ugly sequence involving the loss of three beers and what appeared to be a high-quality suede jacket, but the Spurs still came out of it with points.

For Leonard, the first half was a microcosm of all that is Kawhi, as both his potential and his rawness were on full display.  His offense, as with the rest of the starters, was badly off-kilter; KL shot 1-6 in the first half, yet managed to vacuum up 9 rebounds before the halfway point of the second quarter.  He brought excellent energy and his inimitable disruptive defense, but he also forced multiple shots in isolation offense. The yin and yang of Kawhi were epitomized by a sequence midway through the second quarter where he pulled in a contested rebound and immediately turned upcourt for a 4-2 transition advantage, only to force a poor drive against the defenders, leading to a turnover and a breakaway-snowbird dunk for Jusef Nurkic.  Even so, the "coachability" the staff raves about was apparent, as Popovich took an immediate timeout, and Leonard responded on the next play with a smart drive-and-dish to a wide open Tony Parker in his favorite mid-range zone.

While Kawhi dominated the late first and early second quarters, Popovich opted to bring in Manu to run the show to close the first half, and the 37 year old guard put on a display of heady drives, layups, dishes, and hockey assists to clear out any evidence of the Spurs' early offensive slump.  The team tallied 31 in the second quarter to finish the first half with a respectable 51 points.

The early offensive struggles by both teams dominated the eye-test discussion, but the deeper problem for San Antonio was the prevalence of defensive breakdowns, allowing a ridiculous number of dunks and open layups to a Nuggets team that ranks 20th in offensive efficiency in the league.  Much of that was attributable to Denver's frantic energy, but the veteran Spurs completely failed to take advantage of the Nugget's gambling on both sides of the court.

The defensive breakdowns continued immediately in the second half, as the Spurs allowed Arron Afflalo a wide open three pointer, leading to one of Popovich's trademark 22-seconds-into-the-quarter-timeouts to repeat to the team *exactly* what he had just spent 15 minutes yelling at them during halftime.  The tone of the game to start the second half echoed the first, with the Spurs not just making uncharacteristic mistakes, but borderline comedic ones.  It's a painful thing to watch Tiago miss three open layups and tip-ins in a row, but to watch Tony throw a beautiful dish to a wide open Tony Lawson under the Spurs basket on the next possession was particularly cringe-worthy.

The sloppy play continued throughout the third quarter, as the two teams traded baskets, and the Spurs allowed Denver to stick around.  The Spurs extended the lead by one point in the third quarter, outscoring the Nuggets 29-28.

Manu played a masterful game through the first three quarters, directing the offense flawlessly when called upon.  He recorded 7 assists in the third quarter alone, including two highlight reel passes to Kawhi and Baynes in transition, and another bullet that found Duncan sealed off from the defense underneath for an easy lay-in.

The Spurs opened the fourth quarter with the urgency expected from a contender, as they opened up their first double-digit lead of the game with Kawhi and Boris combining for three triples on three consecutive possessions.  The Spurs began playing a smarter, more efficient game, but couldn't quite escape making the odd careless turnover as they tried to whip the ball around the court.  The early expenditure of energy by the Nuggets began to show, as they could no longer sustain the frantic pace required to recover from overplaying, and ended up committing more mistakes and turnovers than they forced.

The lead peaked at 98-84, but Denver managed to whittle it down under 10 at 100-92, but consecutive scores by Parker pushed it back above double digits. to 105-94 with just over 90 seconds left to play, and Denver didn't threaten again.

The final score came out to 109-99, and the Spurs put 6 players in double figures, recording 27 assists on 38 field goals.

The Spurs pulled this one out by dominating the start of the fourth quarter and keeping the Nuggets at arm's length to close the game.  Parker finished the game with 18 points to lead the team in scoring, while Kawhi had 17 points and a gaudy 15 rebounds.  Manu shot poorly, scoring 11 points on 4-12 shooting (including a worrisome 2-6 free thow line), but led the team with 8 assists and only one turnover, playing his unique, intelligent, controlled-dervish style that was simply sublime to watch.  Kawhi is obviously working to carve an expanded roll in the offense, and Popovich appears content to let him go in isolation on occasion before reining him back to remind him that it's his decision-making and not his athleticism that has the potential to make him a franchise player.  While he forced quite a few possessions, his passing game has developed noticeably from last year, and defenses are increasingly forced to focus on him when he starts posting up on a defender more than 10 feet from the basket.

The Spurs travel to Chicago on Thursday to play one of the East's contenders, the Central Division-leading Bulls, who coincidentally sport the same record as the Spurs at 27-16.  Must be a nice division to play in.