It’s hard to truly explain what happened on Tuesday at the Pepsi Center. The game had more twists and turns that the fourth installment of a horror movie franchise. Early on it seemed like the Spurs were going to blow out the Nuggets and take decisive control of the series. Denver was missing good looks, just like in the opening matchup, while DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge were hitting tough shots. The Nuggets looked positively shook as they fell behind by 18 points. It was not crazy to believe they would fold then and there. Instead coach Michael Malone got called for a technical foul which seemed to awaken his team. A 13-2 run followed and the only reason the Spurs weathered the storm and went into the break up 10 was because Derrick White carried them during that tough stretch.
It wouldn’t have been surprising to see the home team finally asserting itself in the third quarter after figuring things out to close the first half. This game was too weird for that. The Spurs once again came out strong and built a substantial lead that reached 19 points with 4:28 to go in the third period. At that point Nikola Jokic was having a quiet scoring game while Jamal Murray had been an abject disaster, missing all seven of his shots. Paul Millsap, who had carried the offense for stretches in the first half, had four fouls. Things weren’t looking good for Denver, which of course rattled off a 16-4 run to close the quarter. Jokic dropped five points in that spell and the crowd got back into the game after previously booing the team. Going into the final period the Spurs still led by seven but anything seemed possible.
It was fitting that Jamal Murray got insanely hot to close the game and give the Nuggets an unexpected win. This matchup deserved nothing but the most unthinkable ending. Murray, who had been bad enough during the first three quarters to be rightfully considered the main culprit if Denver lost, suddenly couldn’t miss. He went 8-for-9 from the field while Derrick White, who had outplayed him thoroughly for most of the game, could do nothing to counter him. DeMar DeRozan tried his best to keep the Spurs in it but his 10 fourth-quarter points simply weren’t enough as the mistakes piled on. After looking completely in control twice and holding off the Nuggets’ comeback attempts a few times, San Antonio just had no more answers. Gregg Popovich emptied his bench with 1:15 to go and down 10 points, essentially ending a bizarre night of playoff basketball.
The game was so strange that it’s even hard to figure out how to react to it. In hindsight it seems like the Spurs’ hot shooting was just unsustainable and that it was a matter of time before guys as talented as Jokic and Murray figured things out, but during the game the comeback didn’t feel inevitable. It’s only fair to call what happened in the fourth quarter a collapse, but should it negate how dominant the Spurs looked at times? They lost a perfect opportunity to essentially close the series by not capitalizing on a night in which two of Denver’s starters — Murray and Will Barton — were actively harmful to their team’s chances for most of the game, but will return home with a series split and the knowledge that they were the superior team for seven of the first eight quarters played on the road.
It’s a good thing there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, because San Antonio will sure need some time to process what happened on Game 2. A closer look will surely reveal whether there was actually something they could have done differently. Right now it feels like it was just one of those nights, but if the Nuggets actually figured something out during that late run Pop might need to make some big adjustments. I can’t wait for Game 3 to provide some answers.
The stars show up, the bench doesn’t
The Spurs’ bench gave them an edge in Game 1 but couldn’t string together a second solid performance. The four core bench players combined for just 21 points on 23 shots. Rudy Gay suffered the biggest drop-off in production, going from 14 points in nine shots to just five in the same number of attempts.
San Antonio managed to survive for most of the night without much bench scoring because LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan were more effective than they were in Game 1. Those two combined for 55 points after scoring just 33 points in the opening matchup of the series. Hopefully both the stars and the bench will show up for Game 3.
Too many live ball turnovers and bad transition defense
The Spurs had just 10 turnovers in Game 2, but they cost them a whopping 15 points. In the fourth quarter alone San Antonio coughed the ball up four times and it cost them nine points. By my count the Nuggets had only seven points directly coming in transition after recovering the ball, which is not terrible. But even the dead ball turnovers were bad. Empty possessions are a problem, especially when they fire up a crowd that was looking for a reason to cheer.
While we are on the subject of transition points, the Nuggets had 21 on Game 2 after getting none in Game 1. They deserve some credit for pushing the pace, but the Spurs clearly weren’t as sharp when it came to getting back on defense.
The White vs. Murray matchups heats up
Derrick White outplayed Jamal Murray in Game 1 and dominated their second matchup for most of the night. In the first three quarters of Game 2 White had 17 points — though, curiously, no assists — to Murray’s three points and two dimes. It all changed in the fourth quarter, in which White went scoreless and Murray dropped 21 points.
“Murray can get as hot as anyone in the league,” said White after the game. “We are just going to take a look at it, see what we can do and make our adjustments.”
With Gary Harris coming surprisingly close to matching DeRozan’s output and Jokic and Aldridge both being similarly productive, the White vs. Murray matchup could be the one that determines who wins the series. White seems ready to take on the challenge, which is great to see.
Game 3 will be played at the AT&T Center this Thursday, April 18.