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Game Preview, Game 1: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets

The Spurs and Nuggets are meeting for the first time in the postseason since 2007. Game 1 is tonight at Mile High.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

This is the match-up that many people were hoping for when it came to the Spurs’ first round opponent. San Antonio split their 4-game season series with the Denver Nuggets 2-2, and while there are certainly things to take away from all of those games, there are also reasons to throw them out the window when it comes to the playoff series that they will begin tonight. For one, the first two games they played, Denver was without the services of Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, and Will Barton, 3 guys that make up their current starting lineup. The final match-up of the season, while showing both teams at full strength, featured San Antonio on an away SEGABABA the day after their heavy horses LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan played 38 and 36 minutes, respectively, in a home victory against the Atlanta Hawks.

Coach Gregg Popovich was also ejected 63 seconds into that one, if you’ll recall.

There are, though, plenty of constants to look at. Nikola Jokic has had an awesome year and is the hub of a Denver offense that ranked 6th in offensive rating. Jamal Murray, the 3rd year guard out of Kentucky, is the sort of guard that will end up in the All Star Game in a couple of years, and though he can be inconsistent, he has shown an ability to have huge games and take huge shots. He’s complimented by Will Barton, Malik Beasley, and Gary Harris, all wing players capable of hitting 3s and shooting off the dribble. Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee flesh out the depth behind Jokic, with Millsap being a do-it-all power forward (though on the shorter side) and Plumlee a perfect example of your prototypical back-up big man.

It will take a locked-in effort for San Antonio to get a win in Game 1, but they’ll give it a go tonight.

San Antonio Spurs (7) at Denver Nuggets (2)

April 13, 2019 | 9:30 PM CT

Watch: ESPN | Listen: WOAI

Spurs Injuries: Dejounte Murray (ACL — out)

Nuggets Injuries: None of note

The defense has to come to play

The Spurs defense has been hammered much of the season by pundits and opposing teams alike, but it was actually very competent within the confines of the AT&T Center, where they gave up 106.7 points per 100 possessions, which was the 10th ranked home mark in the entire league and would have been good for 6th across the entire season. Their performance on the road, however, was another story. For some reason, they were unable to bring the focus and desire they showed at home on the road, allowing 114.3 points per 100 possessions. That 7.6 drop-off made them the 25th ranked defense on the road.

Had they kept that pace the entire season, it would have been worse than all but two teams in the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns.

Coach Gregg Popovich must have his guys locked in and ready to go on that end of the court from the tip. They can’t afford to give up wide-open looks from 3 like this Gary Harris shot from the 3rd quarter of their final math-up of the season:

Here, DeRozan passes Murray off to Derrick White and takes on the responsibility of guarding Gary Harris. However, at no point does he even look at Harris until the ball is in his hands, choosing instead to hover around the paint on the weak-side not really doing anything. This is the same poor defensive awareness that has plagued San Antonio on the road all season and it will have Denver up in a hurry if it looks similar to this most of the night.

It’s time for DeMar DeRozan to shed his “DeFrozen,” moniker

DeMar DeRozan has had, in many ways, the best season of his career. He shot a career high from the field, averaged more rebounds and assists per game than in any other season of his career and, until the conclusion of Game 82, was the leading scorer the entire season. He’s been everything San Antonio could have hoped for in the aftermath of the Kawhi Leonard trade.

While a big reason for Toronto’s playoff failures during his time there were undoubtedly the result of both playoff inexperience and having to play against Lebron James and the 4-time Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Cavaliers, there are still some red flags when it comes to his playoff performances to this point. He’s never shot higher than 44% from the field, and in 3 playoff runs, he shot 40% or worse. His points per game have fallen from their regular season marks in the last 3 post-seasons, as well as his free throw attempts.

DeRozan shot 55/50/68 against Denver this season to go along with averages of 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists, mostly in line with his season averages. In the two games that San Antonio won, he had numbers of 30-7-5 and 24-6-7 on great shooting percentages, while his numbers in the losses (15-5-5 and 11-1-3) were mediocre. In the first loss, he was one of the Spurs players that missed crucial free throws down the stretch of a 102-99 Denver victory.

The Spurs don’t need DeRozan to average 30 a game for them to win this series, but they do need him to remain aggressive, both as a play maker and as a scorer. Good things have happened all year when he’s scoring and setting his teammates up and that cannot change in the postseason.

Go to the boards

Denver was a top 10 offense this season and a big reason for that was because of their willingness to crash the offensive glass. In the era of pace and space, many teams have eschewed the idea of offensive rebounds in favor of getting back in transition, but Denver has placed a heavy emphasis on collecting their own misses, with only the Oklahoma City Thunder grabbing more ORB per game than them.

The Nuggets grabbed more offensive rebounds than San Antonio in 3 of the 4 games they played this season, with San Antonio’s sole victory coming in their 113-85 blowout loss earlier this month. While it only translated to 1 victory for Denver, it is still a crucial ingredient of their offensive identity and something that the Spurs can control if they, much like their defensive mentality, show a willingness to go to the boards and box out as soon as shots go up.

The Rotation

Since the All Star Break, Pop has mainly gone to a line-up of Bryn Forbes, Derrick White, DeRozan, Aldridge and Jakob Poeltl to start games, with Rudy Gay or Davis Bertans occasionally getting the nod at the starting power forward spot. To go along with those 6, I think we can expect Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli to more or less flesh out the playoff rotation.

With no back to backs, it will be important for White, DeRozan, Aldridge, and Gay to play as many minutes as possible, preferably in the 35-40 range. Those are the Spurs’ 4 best players, comprised of their best scorers, best perimeter defender, and their best rim protector. Poeltl should see a good chunk of time as well when Aldridge heads to the bench for a breather. Line-ups featuring both Forbes and Mills also should hopefully be kept to a minimum.

One thing to monitor is the health of Belinelli, who hasn’t looked right since returning from a hip injury a few games back. While I think rookie Lonnie Walker IV has skills that should help the Spurs no matter the opponent, I will not be shocked to see Pop give some minutes to Dante Cunningham should Belinelli be unable to perform. Let’s just hope he doesn’t leave Marco out there if he shouldn’t be.

Vegas Line: Denver by 5.5

Prediction: Spurs by 3

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

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