The Spurs escaped the Pepsi Center on Saturday with a huge Game 1 win that might be a tipping point in their series against the Nuggets. It was a gutsy performance in which San Antonio, without playing particularly well, managed to keep the home team at bay throughout the night. They were simply ready. Denver was not.
The concerns many experts had about the Nuggets proved to be true in the opening game of the series, at least on one end. While Denver and its superstar center played better on defense than expected, on offense the Spurs managed to limit Nikola Jokic’s impact by making him a passer.
One of the most intriguing questions about the series was how the Spurs were going to guard Jokic. Few players around the league are so crucial to a team’s attack as the Serbian center is to the Nuggets’. His ability to orchestrate the offense while also offering inside and outside scoring makes him one of the most well-rounded weapons around. Like with all other elite offensive players, it’s almost impossible to fully contain him because he can hurt a defense in so many ways. Opponents have to essentially pick their poison and either live with Jokic picking apart their defense with his passing or punishing them with his scoring ability.
The Spurs chose the former rather early in the game. In the first few possessions, they tried to guard Jokic using just Jakob Poeltl, who struggled to contain him. In the first four and a half minutes of the night Jokic had four points and two assists and looked like the offensive engine he’s been all season. After Poeltl exited the game in the first quarter, the Spurs’ strategy changed. When Jokic caught the ball in the post, the closest perimeter player was ready to pounce as soon as he took a step towards the middle. When Jokic passed to the open man, San Antonio rotated to force an extra pass which would give them a chance at recovering. Ideally they’d either cause a turnover or catch up and chase shooters off the arc, but even if they just managed to contest those outside looks, the possession could be considered a success.
On pick and rolls and handoffs, the focus was also on preventing Jokic from scoring. The big man would drop back while the primary defender fought over the screen to return to the play. That’s how the Spurs typically guard those types of play but on Saturday they went out of their way to force the ball handler to take the shot. The big would try to take away the angles for potential pocket passes even if it meant conceding floaters while the perimeter defender would occasionally hang back to prevent Jokic from getting the ball back if he decided to pop instead of dive hard. Once a shot was up, the big would also immediately look for Jokic to box him out in case of a miss. The goal was clearly to prevent Jokic from getting anything resembling an easy shot close to the basket.
That was the recipe to contain Jokic for the rest of the game and it worked. He finished with 10 points on nine shots, a dreadful performance from a player who averaged 20 points per game on 51 percent shooting during the regular season. The Spurs made it their mission to guarantee that Jokic wouldn’t hurt them with his interior scoring — and they succeeded. The Spurs chose to give him some open jumpers knowing fully well that the All-Star big man can be a reluctant and streaky jump shooter and that gambit paid off as well, as Jokic went 0-for-3 from beyond the arc, airballing an open pick and pop attempt in deflating fashion. I’m short, San Antonio shut down the Nuggets’ leading scorer.
Of course, as mentioned, taking something away from Jokic doesn’t happen without conceding something else. The Spurs decided to make him a passer and live with the results. The strategy involved serious danger; Jokic isn’t just a good passer, he’s elite. He logged 14 assists to just three turnovers (only one of which came as the result of an errant pass) and largely made the right reads. His teammates just missed their shots. Denver is not a great three-point shooting team, as most of their perimeter players are streaky from beyond the arc, but they have enough talent to connect on more than 21 percent of their outside looks, especially when 26 of their 28 attempts come with no defender within four feet of the shooter. The misses from mid-range and floater range were also more than can be expected to continue, especially for players like Jamal Murray who have proved they can hit those.
Things could have gone wrong in a hurry for San Antonio had the Nuggets just made the good, open looks they generated. Some regression to the mean feels inevitable over the course of the series. If it comes, the Spurs’ defensive game plan could look foolish as Denver starts hitting open shot after open shot. And yet it’s hard to make a case for changing strategies going forward. The Nuggets went 31-14 for the season in games in which Jokic scored over 20 points and 22-13 in games in which he didn’t. They seem to be at their best when their offensive centerpiece is not only facilitating but also making buckets himself. Keeping him from getting the ball in scoring position close to the basket and sending help when he posts up seems smart even if it means leaving others open.
So the key will be discipline in the execution of their somewhat risky game plan. San Antonio did a surprisingly outstanding job in transition defense, not letting the Nuggets get any buckets on the break. Denver is a slow-paced team but relies on those quick, easy scores to relieve some pressure from their half court offense. The Spurs need to continue to deny them that possibility. The rotations after Jokic passes out of double teams will need to be even sharper going forward now that the Nuggets know that help is coming. The Spurs bigs will need to be in perfect position to deny passes to a rolling Jokic and the perimeter defenders will have to fight through screens to get back in the play and contest those jumpers that were too often wide open Saturday night. It won’t be easy to do all of that at a high level to the tune of three more wins.
The Spurs have no choice but to try, unless Pop has something else up his sleeve. Their game plan for Game 1 was not a perfect strategy —or even particularly safe one— but they know it can work because it already has. If it proves effective once again in Game 2, the series upset could be within grasp.