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Game Preview: Denver Nuggets vs. San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs will look to close out a 3-game home-stand with a win against one of the more surprising teams of the season.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Who, pray tell, expected the Denver Nuggets to play as well as they have this year at the start of the season?

Sitting in 2nd place in the bloodbath that is known as the Western Conference with a real shot of getting the #1 seed (as of today, they sit just a half-game out on Golden State), Denver has remained incredibly consistent throughout the long grind of an 82-game NBA season. Using All Star and legit-MVP candidate Nikola Jokic as their hub on offense, Coach of the Year candidate Mike Malone has his team playing at a methodical pace (98 possessions per 48 minutes, the 27th ranked pace in the league) that nevertheless is ruthlessly efficient (3rd in Offensive Rating at 114.2), gets everyone involved (2nd in the league in assists per game), and benefits from extra possessions with their league-leading offensive rebound percentage.

They’ve surrounded Jokic with a bevy of wing players that can get their own shot, the lead man being 3rd year guard Jamal Murray, who lacks consistency and is just as likely to score below 10 points (he scored just 9 in their first match-up with the Spurs this season) as he is to light it up (31 in their following match-up just two days later). For San Antonio to win their 3rd straight game, they’ll have to limit the impact Jokic and their guards make.

Denver Nuggets (42-20) vs. San Antonio Spurs (35-29)

March 4, 2019 | 7:30 PM CT

Watch: FSSW | Listen: WOAI

Spurs injuries: Dejounte Murray (knee — out)

Nuggets injuries: Trey Lyles (hamstring, was OUT Saturday)

Point Jokic

It’s not often that a 7-footer is your leading assist-man, but that’s exactly what Nikola Jokic has done this season for Denver, and it’s been extremely successful: When Jokic registers at least 7 assists, the Nuggets are 16-4. While the Spurs were able to limit the Joker’s scoring in the first match-up (he made just 1 of only 5 shots the entire game), he was still able to register 10 assists.

In the second game a few nights later, he was more aggressive on offense and it helped set-up his teammates even more. Early in the first of that game he made an aggressive move in the post on Aldridge that drew Derrick White away from Jamal Murray, who Jokic ended up finding for a wide-open 3:

Jokic and Murray once again ran the basics on this give-and-go in transition, which has been an area where the Spurs have defended poorly this year:

Patty Mills got caught ball-watching and Jokic saw it, making him pay for it immediately with a pin point pass. Later in the first, they went to the give-and-go again in the half-court, except this time the cutter (Trey Lyles) didn’t get as open, so Jokic took it himself:

At this point, Jokic already had 4 more points (9) and almost as many shot attempts (4) as he had for the entirety of the previous game. While Will Barton, Jamal Murray, a returning Isaiah Thomas, and rookie Monte Morris are all capable of creating their own shots, Jokic is still responsible for assisting on 38% of all field goals made when he is in the game (Fun Fact: No Nugget player who has played more than 10 games is creating more than 29% of their own 3-point field goal MAKES).

It’ll be up to LaMarcus Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl to do the best they can to not only limit Jokic’s scoring, but his ability to get his teammates involved as well.

Dual bigs going forward?

The recent buy-out of Pau Gasol has left the Spurs very thin at the 5-spot. This made it all the more surprising that Gregg Popovich decided to give Jakob Poeltl the nod in the starting line-up over Rudy Gay during Saturday’s win over the Thunder, with the only legit back-up big, Chimezie Metu, being inactive. Poeltl came up big with 7 rebounds, 2 steals, and 3 blocks in his 26 minutes of time, while Rudy was able to give the bench 22 points and a legit-wing who can get his own shot, attack mismatches, and play within the flow of the offense, something that they’ve lacked. On his flush to end the first quarter, the only other wing-starter out there for the Spurs was Bryn Forbes:

PtR’s Bruno Passos noted how Gay was feasting on mismatches almost the entire night. Here he takes big man Nerlens Noel out on the perimeter and dances with him, giving him a few head fakes before shaking him for the mid-range jumper:

Pop has traditionally preferred to start two bigs, another example of zigging while the entire league zags and goes smaller and smaller. He’s had success with it as recently as the 16-17 season, when the Spurs won 61 games starting LaMarcus Aldridge and either Pau Gasol or Dewayne Dedmon for the majority of them. With only one back-up big, though, I’m not sure if this will be a viable strategy going forward.

If they roll with the dual-big look tonight, I would expect Aldridge to get the initial match-up with Paul Millsap, who is more mobile than Jokic.

Make your freebies

The Spurs lost their second match-up to Denver 102-99 in uncharacteristic fashion: At the free throw line. While the Spurs don’t take the most free throws in the Association, they knock them in at a league-leading 82%. Back on December 28th, though, they shot just 55% (11/20), with very good free throw shooters like Marco Belinelli (the closest thing to automatic on the Spurs at 90%, 2/3), DeMar DeRozan (82% on the year, went 3/6), Derrick White (77%, 1/2), and LaMarcus Aldridge (85%, 2/3) combined to miss 7 free throws, essentially the difference between them at least forcing OT. Over the last 2 minutes, DeRozan, White, and Poeltl combined to go 4/8 from the stripe, with DeRozan missing 2 out of 4 and White and Poeltl splitting a pair each. The misses may have shown some signs of fatigue, as they went short (DeRozan) and long (White), but they were crucial misses nonetheless.

In a 3-point game that comes down to free throws, you would be happy to be in that situation when you’re the best FT shooting team in the league. Let’s hope that they shoot like it tonight.

Vegas line: Nuggets by 2

Prediction: Spurs by 2

For the visitor’s perspective, please visit Denver Stiffs.

PtR’s Gamethread will be up this afternoon for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.