The wait is over. It took until the last night of the regular season, but the first round matchups in the West have been determined. After beating the Mavericks in their last game of the regular season the Spurs secured the seventh seed in the conference and a date with the second-seeded Nuggets in the opening round of the postseason.
In a way, the fact that San Antonio managed to avoid the Warriors feels like a win. Golden State is still the class of the league and it would have been hard to imagine a scenario in which the Spurs could have competed against them, much less pulled off the upset. The Nuggets, as impressive as they have been, at least have some question marks surrounding them. Denver should absolutely be considered the favorite, but a fun, close series is not outside the realm of possibility.
In this special edition of PtR’s round table, contributors Marilyn Dubinksi, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Jesus Gomez join Editor-in-Chief J.R. Wilco to discuss how the matchup could develop and offer some predictions. Feel free to join the discussion in the comments.
Were the Nuggets your preferred first-round opponent?
Marilyn Dubinski: They were. I know with CJ McCollum’s recent injury and Jusuf Nurkic out for the season there was a certain appeal about playing the Blazers, but I never considered it an option that much just because it would have required an even quirkier outcome than Wednesday night already produced. Of course, saying the Nuggets are the “preferred” choice is by no means to say the Spurs will be favored against them, but they’re a much better match-up than the Warriors or Rockets because they aren’t as reliant on the three (where the Spurs’ defense is the weakest), play at a slower pace, and for a change it’s just nice going into a series in which you know there’s at least a chance.
Mark Barrington: I didn’t have a specific preference, I was hoping for any team that was not named the Warriors. I think the Nuggets are a decent matchup for the Spurs, because their lack of playoff experience gives Coach Pop an opening to use some unconventional strategies that wouldn’t work as well against a more experienced team. On the other hand, the altitude in Denver gives them a built-in home court advantage, although the extended breaks between playoff games may give the Spurs more time to acclimate.
Bruno Passos: The Blazers, although a long shot, were probably a friendlier matchup, but the Nuggets were definitely my preferred between the more likely three that included Houston and Golden State. Beyond splitting the season series with the Spurs, they’re also relatively green when it comes to playoff experience and play a style that should allow them to switch between twin-big lineups and small ball more easier than Houston or GS.
Jesus Gomez: They were, but only because the Warriors and the Rockets are really bad matchups for the Spurs and the Trail Blazers never seemed in play. I get the sense that some people believe the Nuggets are a bit of a paper tiger, but I don’t necessarily agree. They should win the series, unless something goes wrong. That being said, I can see the Spurs making it competitive, especially at home, in a way that they might not have been able to against Houston and Golden State, so I’m happy the Nuggets are the opponent.
J.R. Wilco: Without a doubt, and for one main reason: I don’t think the Nuggets are better than the Spurs. Over the last 33 games (over 40% of the season) both teams have identical records; and that includes the disastrous Rodeo Road Trip. So, for a huge chunk of the season — the most recent chunk — the teams have gone neck-and-neck. All this isn’t to say that I think the Spurs will win the series. (After all, Denver has home court advantage, and what an advantage it is.) I’m just saying that I think this series is the Spurs’ best chance for a win.
What would have to go right for the Spurs to pull off the upset?
Dubinski: It goes without saying that the Spurs need a road win for the upset, but beyond that the biggest thing they will have to do is not let Denver’s shooters (specifically Jamal Murray, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Will Barton) get hot from three. If they can keep the pace down and force Nikola Jokic to do everything, they’ll stand a good chance at the upset.
Barrington: They’ll have to take advantage of the Nuggets’ playoff inexperience by stealing one of the first two games in Denver. If they go down 0-2, I don’t see any likely path for winning the series, but I guess anything could happen. The Spurs have to avoid lapses like they had against the Mavericks late in Wednesday’s game. The Spurs will have to put in consistent effort, which isn’t something that you’ve been able to count on this season.
Passos: An early win on the road could really swing things, putting an inexperienced Nuggets group in a situation they’ve never faced. If Denver doesn’t come with the necessary balance of aggressiveness and discipline on defense, we could definitely see things play out in the Spurs’ favor.
Gomez: I can see the Spurs surprising the Nuggets and winning Game 1 on the road. For that to happen they’d probably have to get Jokic in foul trouble and limit Denver’s transition buckets, but it’s doable. After that, the pressure would be all on the Nuggets. If the Spurs then hold serve at home before the series goes back to Denver, they would have a couple of great opportunities to close it out.
Wilco: Play like they live in Denver. It can’t be stated strongly enough: this year's Spurs are bad on the road. (How bad are they?) They’re the only Western Conference playoff team with a losing record on the road, and every series they have (perhaps just this one) will begin in enemy territory. To keep their season alive, they’ll have to do something they’ve rarely done since mid-October: play a quality 48 minutes in the road against a team that doesn’t beat itself.
What would have to go wrong for them to get swept?
Dubinski: Two or three of the players listed above get hot and stay hot from three throughout, the Spurs have no answer of their own on offense (even at home), and that opens everything else up for Jokic and Paul Millsap to do the dirty work inside. Still, the odds of a sweep happening seem extremely low. I’d say a five-game series with the Spurs getting one at home is the most reasonable worst-case scenario.
Barrington: I don’t see a realistic scenario where the Spurs lose in four games. Worst case would be a gentleman’s sweep where the Spurs win one of game 3 or 4. And that could happen if the Nuggets play with intensity throughout and if Derrick White and DeMar DeRozan go into some kind of post-season funk. If that happens, the DeMar haters who have been silenced so far this season will be back with a vengeance. If that occurs, I may delete my account, because it’s going to be so annoying to read.
Passos: I don’t see a sweep happening, even in the darkest of timelines, without a major injury to San Antonio or a series of crunch-time meltdowns. The AT&T Center has been one of the league’s best home-court advantages, and I think we’ll have at least a couple of games where both DeRozan and Aldridge have big nights.
If it (or a gentleman’s sweep) were to happen, it may come off the back of a consistently hot shooting performance from deep. The Spurs still have to live with forfeiting certain outside looks to opponents — usually above the break and, ideally, to less effective shooters — and it wouldn’t be stunning to see guys like Malik Beasley or Will Barton completely tilt the balance by coming big in multiple games.
Gomez: If the Nuggets win the first two games, they’ll be extremely confident going into San Antonio. They have guys that can get hot when things are going well for them, so it’s hard to see the defense stopping them once they catch fire. The Spurs’ shooters, meanwhile, have been a little inconsistent lately, so I wouldn’t like the Silver and Black’s chances of coming up on top on a shootout, even at home. The Spurs need to win one in Denver while keeping the Nuggets’ offense under control, or the series could be short.
Wilco: Just a grab-bag of all the Spurs’ most annoying traits: not getting back in transition, loss of focus on defense, poor execution on offense, not blocking out after forcing a miss. Four games like the ones they played in February, and we’ll have to wait until next year for Pop to stand alone at the all-time wins NBA coaching list,
Who’s the X-Factor on the series?
Dubinski: Any combo of Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, and Davis Bertans. The Spurs will need those guys to bring fire off the bench, and when they do the Spurs usually win. When they don’t, and it comes down to Aldridge, DeRozan, and Gay to produce most of the offense, it often spells trouble for the Spurs, and that becomes tenfold in playoffs.
Barrington: Jamal Murray for the Nuggets, for sure. He’s torched the Spurs in a few games, and they have yet to prove that they have anyone who can control him. I’m going to go with Bryn Forbes as the X-Factor for the Spurs. He’s really been hitting his shots in clutch situations late in the year, and I think he just might hit a game-winner or two in this series.
Passos: I’ll name one for each side: Jamal Murray and Derrick White. Both are talented point guards that opponents may force to step up, with the Spurs looking to get the ball out of Nikola Jokic’s hands and the Nuggets focused on DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Murray has shown a knack for getting hot in a hurry, while White’s aggressiveness with seeking out his shot and attacking close-outs has been the difference in a number of the Spurs’ wins this season.
Gomez: I’m going with the shooting guards, DeMar DeRozan and Gary Harris. Aldridge and Jokic should both do damage on offense and White should be able to come close to matching Murray’s overall impact. The benches are both good. The Spurs will need DeRozan to give them an edge. He needs to attack Jokic relentlessly on the pick and roll and hopefully get him in foul trouble. No settling. For the Nuggets Harris could be huge. He’s struggled a bit this season but at his best he’s arguably their second most important player. If Harris can return to form and match DeRozan’s performance, the Spurs will be in trouble. If DeRozan dominates, San Antonio has a chance.
Wilco: I love Derrick White, and think his play on both ends could be a life saver for the team in every sense of the term. If he has a breakout series, announcing himself to the league as a playoff assassin, San Antonio will be in terrific position to get the upset
What’s your prediction?
Dubinski: The realistic side of me says Nuggets in 6 or 7. The optimist in me says the road Spurs of yore make an appearance, win Games 1 and 5 in Denver, and finish them off in Game 6. It’s probably wishful thinking, but hey, this is the first non-Warriors series I’ve gotten to predict in two years, so I’m going to enjoy it.
Barrington: Nuggets in 6. Spurs win games 3 and 4, but Denver settles in and grinds out their home games and game 6 in San Antonio.
Alternate reality: Spurs win game 2 in Denver, close out their first round series in 6 games, and improbably keep advancing, taking home their 6th Larry O’Brian trophy in June after hard-fought series against the Raptors, with DeMar blocking Leonard’s shot to seal the win as time runs out in game 7.
Passos: Nobody wins on the road. Nuggets in 7.
Gomez: The Spurs keep them close but can’t win either of the first two games in Denver. The Nuggets take one in San Antonio and close it out in five.
Wilco: Unless I’m being held at gunpoint, I don’t do predictions. But I will say this: I will be surprised if the Spurs win the series. Pleasantly surprised, but not too surprised.