The Spurs’ offense did just enough to secure the win in their Saturday night series opener against the Nuggets. Despite playing on the road against the best home team in the league this season, the Spurs put up a respectable 109.8 points per 100 possessions. That’s well below their season average of 112.0 outside of San Antonio, but also much better than the 106.6 the Nuggets have allowed in Denver.
They did it despite poor shooting nights from both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, relying instead on efficient scoring from almost everyone else on the roster. Aside from those two and Marco Belinelli, every Spur who put up a shot scored more than 1.3 points per attempt.
Those contributions were the clear key to victory on that end of the floor, but they didn’t stem from a change in approach. The Spurs know who they are and don’t budge for anyone. Unlike the Nuggets, whose best player took the 4th most attempts on the team, the Spurs rode DeMar and LaMarcus the entire game.
The clearest example is the team’s unwavering commitment to the post. They ran or attempted to run post ups on 28 possessions, nearly a third of their half court opportunities.
LaMarcus led the way, with 14 post up plays, and DeMar used up almost all the rest, with 12. For the most part, the Nuggets chose to play each of them straight up, regardless of who was guarding them. They sent double teams at LaMarcus five times, which worked to get the ball out of his hands.
The Spurs were able to find some open spots on those double teams, particularly at the free throw line, but they struggled to capitalize. Though Derrick White and Bryn Forbes hit a pair of difficult shots at the end of two of those plays, the tactic generally worked out in the Nuggets’ favor.
Outside of those five possessions, the Nuggets stuck to a more conservative defense, sagging into the paint to keep DeMar and LaMarcus away from the rim and trusting their defenders to go one-one-one.
It worked. The two combined to take just four attempts at the rim, per PBPstats, all from LaMarcus, after averaging just over nine per game between the two of them in the regular season.
Overall, the Spurs scored just 24 points on possessions that included a post up and drew 5 fouls, with only 1 turnover. That’s not very good, but the Nuggets’ commitment to limiting the Spurs out of the post opened up opportunities for other players.
Jakob Poelt’s alley oop layup came off the first of Rudy Gay’s two post ups.
And Davis Bertans’ much-needed three pointer to give the Spurs a 6 point lead again with less than 5 minutes to go came from DeMar putting in work on the left block.
The post ups have other effects, too. They typically slow the game down, and the Spurs have much better chances when they can keep a game in the half court. Battling LaMarcus for position over and over could certainly wear down the Nuggets’ best player while dealing with DeMar’s bag of tricks down low could easily get the Spurs into the bonus, something he nearly accomplished all by himself early in the 4th quarter.
Both could stand to be a little more aggressive getting to the rim, though that obviously comes with an increased risk of turnovers, something the Spurs’ typically avoid at all costs. But it would also bring an increased chance of easy buckets and the potential to draw both more help and more fouls, likely out-weighing the danger, especially given that both have been low-turnover players their entire careers.
That’s not to say the Spurs should continue to rely on such a heavy dose of the post, but the approach does have some upside. Given how well equipped the Nuggets are to guard DeMar and LaMarcus, though, with multiple capable defenders to throw at each, it might be a good idea to diversify a little.
Handing a few more of those opportunities to Rudy would likely pay dividends. He only posted up twice in this game, and didn’t take a shot either time. Over the course of the season, though, he shot a higher percentage out of the post than either DeMar or LaMarcus, and there will be more mismatches on the floor for him at any given point in this series than for either of the team’s two stars.
That would likely require finding some time for Rudy to be on the floor without DeMar and with only one of LaMarcus or Jakob for spacing reasons, but it could well be worth the effort. The Nuggets probably won’t miss so many shots again in this series, and the Spurs will likely need to make some small changes if they want to keep pace.