One of the luxuries that Gregg Popovich enjoys with the Spurs, a by-product of the culture he's built, is that he never has to worry about his team reacting the right way to a loss. Sure, San Antonio loses multiple games in a row every now and again (though not yet this season), but usually all they need is one setback to set them on the right course, especially if the previous loss had something to do with not enough physicality or intensity or things along those lines. Pop knows his guys will always bring it after a loss, regardless of who's in or out of the lineup.
The Spurs rested Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili (the latter has missed all three games vs. Denver this season, causing Nuggets coach Mike Malone to joke "I think he's nervous to play against us"), as you suspected they might the night after they both played at Houston. But the Spurs came into the game a perfect 5-0 in SEGABABA's, with a 17.2-point scoring differential, and it barely took a ding at all by the time they were through with the Nugs.
Denver had their own absences, to be fair. They've been missing starting center Jusuf Nurkic all season as he recovers from off-season surgery on his patellar tendon, and they were also without leading scorer Danilo Gallinari (left ankle sprain), rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay (right ankle sprain) and Wilson Chandler (hip surgery). That the Spurs have been almost completely healthy through 32 games is something of a minor miracle.
Both teams took the court with lineups out of pre-season, with the Nuggets in particular forced to start Kostas Papanikolalou, Joffrey Lauvergnre and Jameer Nelson. As you might expect, the game started a bit sluggishly for both sides, with the Spurs eeking out a 22-20 lead after one quarter despite shooting just 37.5 percent. Patty Mills hit a couple of threes off the bench --both assisted by Jonathon Simmons-- to give them some space, but mostly they tried to operate inside, with middling success, shooting just 4-of-13 in the paint. Kenneth Faried hammered down a couple of dunks for Denver, but there wasn't much in the way of highlights or aesthetic appeal.
It was just mostly Kawhi Leonard trying harder and being more talented than everyone else, which works, I guess.
The game stayed tight until midway through the second quarter. The Spurs subs weren't making many shots, but Boban Marjanovic did a solid job of establishing post position against the much smaller Darrell Arthur, who had no recourse but to foul. Boban the Destroyer swished all six freebies (a gentle reminder to those who want the hack-a-whoever rule changed that there's no law that states seven-footers have to be liabilities at the line) and both David West and LaMarcus Aldridge scored inside to open up some breathing room.
That's when Tony Parker, in a bit of a micro-slump, having missed nine of his past 10 shots, went to work, scoring all 13 of his points on 6-of-8 shooting over the final 4:37 of the half, mostly on poor Nelson. The Wee Frenchman drove for a hat trick of layups, including this acrobatic beauty...
and hit two pull-up jumpers and finished it off with a corner three from West to give the Spurs a 56-42 lead at intermission.
Uncharacteristically, the Spurs sagged a bit in the third. Leonard scored 10 in the quarter, including a pair of long-balls, but Aldridge was cold from outside and no one else did much of anything, with the bench particularly struggling without Ginobili to spark them. The home side were fortunate to go into the final quarter still up 11, as only Will Barton had it going for them with 10 of his own. The ball movement was better in the quarter, but nothing was dropping if Leonard wasn't the one launching.
Worry began to creep in that maybe the Spurs would run out of gas for this one, but out of nowhere, another Frenchman scored 13 points in a quarter, as Boris Diaw rained destruction from inside and out to finish off Denver. Bobo hit a pair of threes, both off passes from Leonard, and used his derriere to get three layups, and it helped to offset Nuggets backup center Nikola Jokic scoring 13 of his own against the less-than-awesome pick-and-roll defense of Marjanovic.
Parker was asked afterward why the 33-year-old Diaw doesn't qualify for "elder veteran" status on the Spurs and get rest days from Popovich and cracked, "I think Pop wants him to lose some weight."
To that Diaw responded (jokingly, I think) that he doesn't need to be rested because he doesn't age as much as "The Big Three" do on account of his work ethic and how he takes care of his body.
It was easy for everyone to have a laugh in the locker room, with Diaw making light of his own physique and Pop's less than merry demeanor after losses, but such things are only possible because of the work they put in on the court. The Spurs operate in the ethos of the proverbial stone-cutter after all. They pound on that rock for 48 minutes and crack on each other once they've cracked the opponent.
Your Three Stars:
1. Kawhi Leonard
2. Tony Parker
3. Boris Diaw
Up Next: Vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Spurs get another Northwest Division softie on Monday night (did you know they've had a game every Monday this season so far? I'm starting to think the league just associates Spurs games with Mondays) with the young, talented T-Pups. Minnesota has lost three straight, including Saturday at home to Indy and 11 of their last 14 overall. They also dropped their previous meeting with the Spurs, at home, last Wednesday in a 108-83 squeaker.
Minnesota has two great building blocks, obviously, in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, plus Ricky Rubio and Zach LaVine, but they're hurting for shooting, defense and coaching in a major way. They've got vets like Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, Andre Miller and Kevin Martin scattering the roster, supposedly to teach the kids how to play, but what if all they're really imparting on Towns and Wiggins is that it's okay to hang on years after you can play as long as you find someone to pay you?