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Spurs continue their march through the West's mid-tier

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San Antonio continued its pursuit of the upper echelon of the Western Conference by winning a skirmish against one of its dregs.

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Friday was Military Appreciation Night, and the vast Spurs empire faced off against the punchy mountain people of Nuggets nation. Their general is a man by the name of Melvin Hunt, who sounds like the CEO of a trucking company but is actually a veteran assistant coach who spent five years in Cleveland (along with a stint at SA's own University of the Incarnate Word) before joining the Nuggets' staff in 2011. After discharging head coach Brian Shaw, the organization promoted Hunt to head man and he's been either a turning point who happens to come from the Lionel Hollins school of fashion, or the recipient of the typical Dead Coach Bounce. Okay, so it's clearly the latter. The Nuggets aren't going anywhere this year, and if anything their in-season personnel moves haven't gone far enough to address a roster that's been high on potential but low on elbow grease.

In just his third game as coach, Hunt had the Nuggets close all night in a 120-111 contest. Though it was a vintage Spurs win - one in which they found the proverbial "extra gear" and shut down the opponents offense at precisely the right time - Denver didn't make it easy. It was as if the Nuggets suspected the Spurs would be looking past them. San Antonio had put together a three game winning streak for what felt like the first time in a hundred years, and had to feel pretty good after thumbing their way down the schedule and seeing the number 13 team in the Western Conference, a team that has staggered through much of the season and who they defeated in their last meeting in Denver, 109-99.

Despite the change in faces (Aaron Afflalo, who's now with the Portland Trail Blazers, scored 21 points that night) that game was similar to this one. Kenneth Faried scored 26 points and terrorized the Spurs on the offensive glass, and Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker led the Spurs in scoring with 17 and 18, respectively. Those scoring totals were a little higher Friday night in San Antonio (24 for Parker, 25 for Leonard) but the Spurs used the same balanced approach to stay in front of the Nuggets for three and a half quarters. That was just long enough for their superior weaponry and manpower to flank and eventually snuff out Denver's offensive attack.

"Our defense was not very sharp," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. "I think late in the fourth we did better. We played with more intensity. Kawhi on (Ty) Lawson or (Jameer) Nelson did very well with his size, bothered them more. It was tough, they were scoring in every way."

After the game, Nuggets forward Darrell Arthur fired up the BCG (Backhanded Complement Generator) to describe the Spurs:

"It seems like they're a slow, half-court team," Arthur said. "However, they get any shot they want to and they move the basketball. They're probably one of the best teams that do that. They executed well towards the end."

Um, thanks? Anyway, the shot that brought out the white flag was a wide open Danny Green 3-pointer from the right wing that came after Ty Lawson got lost on a screen, a vintage Nuggets defensive play that undercut their otherwise admirable efforts.

For the Spurs, the post-RRT campaign continues to surge ahead. The four game winning streak is their longest in over a month, they've crept to within 3 1/2 games of Houston for the 4th seed, and passed Memphis for 4th in the West in point differential. Anyone prone to worry might note that the last time the Spurs posted a four game streak it also came at the expense of these Nuggets, and was promptly followed by a 23 point drubbing in Chicago. Coincidentally, the Spurs have a chance to avenge that defeat on Sunday, though the Bulls will be without Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler. So the four game streak has a good chance to stretch into five.

Springtime has arrived, and with it the chance to mount an offensive on the Western Conference. The Spurs know the best way to honor their fans in the military isn't by wearing silly shirts; it's by kicking butt.

Notes and Numbers

- Will Tony Parker ever truly be back for good? The guy is nearly 33 and has more miles on his legs than an old Subaru, but he's savvy enough to adapt his game as he ages. He can pick his spots, he can become more perimeter oriented, he can defer to Kawhi and others and conserve his energy for when the team really needs it. There is and will be a time for all that old man stuff. But for now, Tony Parker can still do this:

- In a fashion atypical for a 1,000+ game winner, Gregg Popovich spent about two minutes talking to Hunt at midcourt prior to tip-off. Clearly, Pop remembers what it's like to be a nobody assistant coach.

- Spurs had five players score in double figures (Leonard, Parker, Duncan, Green, and Splitter) and two others with nine points (Ginobili and Belinelli). It was the 39th time this season at least five have scored in double figures.

- In the fourth quarter, Kawhi missed a dunk on Wilson Chandler that, if successful, would have leveled the entire East Side, reversed the course of the San Antonio River, and caused Greg Abbott to stand up out of his wheelchair.

- Nuggets got seven more shot attempts than the Spurs. One of those came on an air-balled Denver 3 pointer that fell directly into Faried's lap for an And-1.

- The normally savvy Boris Diaw committed the middle school mistake of saving a loose ball directly towards the Nuggets' basket. As you'd expect, Faried was there. On the telecast, a clearly contrite (and fully Americanized) Diaw could be seen saying "my bad."

- One word to sum up the Spurs tonight: Decisive. Kawhi's jumpers, Tony's passes, Tim's contests at the rim, all had an aura of determination about them. Hot shooting by Denver, untimely turnovers by San Antonio, and some rare foul trouble for Duncan meant the Nuggets hung around throughout, but the Spurs displayed a sense of purpose that had been lacking on the road and throughout February. The "higher gear" is one way to look at it, but I also think it's a team-wide realization that the season was beginning to slip away, and that they can't afford anymore let-ups against bad teams.

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