The Spurs finished the first quarter on Thursday night with a nice little 9 point cushion. In almost any other situation I would’ve felt great about this, but we’d been here before. Quite recently, in fact. A storm was surely coming and I could feel my entire being bracing for the inevitable backslide.
Sure enough, right as the second quarter started Malik Beasley hit a three. Then Mason Plumlee cut in for a dunk. Another 2. Then another. All of a sudden everything was tied up before two minutes had even passed. How? I knew it was coming and it still happened so fast that I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. The beat went on with the Nuggets bench guys pouring in points and the Spurs desperately flailing around trying to get anything to drop. It was one of those runs that get so bad that you think it might never stop. Like, is this going to be forever? 16 unanswered, in a playoff game no less, is one of the most excruciating things in sports to be on the wrong end of.
There was so much to celebrate from the Spurs Game 3 win on Thursday, that I’d forgive you if you just wanted to simply go on about your day pretending the 2nd quarter never happened. I can’t stop thinking about it though. It just unfolded so quickly and it’s a stretch that underlies exactly how fragile this whole operation is. The Spurs have seemed dominant for large swaths of time during these three games against the Nuggets and I don’t think anyone would deny this. And yet, the Nuggets are right there, holding on, ready to strike if given even the slightest room to breathe. The Spurs don’t have any freedom to let off the gas against these guys for even a second, and it sounds exhausting. They should absolutely, without a doubt, be up 3-0 in the series right now, and still you could make a reasonable argument that the Nuggets maybe, sort of should be too. That’s...wild, right?
It happened again in the 4th. With about five minutes left, the Spurs were out ahead pretty comfortably and it seemed like things were winding down a little bit. Then Jamal Murray hit a three. Then Torrey Craig hit one. Another three drops. And another. A very comfy lead was now down to 11 with a little over a minute left and my old “T-Mac 13 points in 35 seconds” war wound started shaking uncontrollably under the table.
This is silly. I know that it is. A double digit win and a career night from our resident wunderkind, Derrick White, should be more than enough to satisfy even the most Chicken Little of us within the ranks. I just feel nervous for these guys and, I can’t help it. We’ve never gone through a playoff run with this core group and my emotion regulation is all out of whack. We don’t have a human metronome like Tim Duncan out there to steady the ship. We don’t have a tiny Frenchman who can spin into the lane and score at will. We don’t have a fearless Argentine ready to throw himself into the depths of Hades to secure a win. Everyone on the team now is either young or new or Marco and I just don’t know what they’re capable of, good or bad.
The good news is that the players on the team don’t seem to share my proclivity for panic. In spite of falling victim to an absurd run in Game 2, no one freaked out when the Nuggets started temporarily whipping lightning bolts out of the sky again. There wasn’t any fear, just a steady resolution to get things back on track. They looked like a group who respected their opponents, knew what they were capable of, and were ready to rise and meet their challenge. While I was sweating through three different shirts on the night, a 24 year old kid that was playing in Division II four years ago was calmly setting the world on fire. DeMar DeRozan, for all the talk of his playoff missteps, quietly locked in and became unstoppable in the third quarter. LaMarcus Aldridge cleaned up every mess, Jakob Poeltl held an All-NBA center at bay, and Bryn Forbes continued to make the Nuggets pay for trying to hide Jamal Murray on him.
The truth is that I’m not going to stop being nervous about this team until Adam Silver is up on a stage handing them a trophy. Is that reasonable? Not even a little. But it also doesn’t matter. The Spurs don’t seem to care if you or me or anyone else thinks they can pull this off. They just want to go out and do their jobs every night because, as it turns out, they’re pretty good at them.
- Derrick White is so good that it makes my brain hurt a little bit. He makes sense only in the context of the Spursverse where the front office has routinely plucked dudes from nowhere and turned them into the guy that unexpectedly ruins people’s days. Everything he did in this game felt inevitable. Each drive to the hoop was blessed with divine purpose and it genuinely looked like he had access to angles on the court that no one else could see. This drive from the end of the 1st was one of my favorites. Following some truly excellent ball movement from the Spurs, Derrick catches it out in the corner. Jokic pays lip service to rotating out and getting a hand up on the corner three, but Derrick is headed to the basket almost immediately. By working so quickly, he’s got the big man off balance and scrambling and then, before he can even blink, Derrick crosses him up and goes right into the heart of the paint. Paul Millsap is there to help, but Derrick gets him to misjudge exactly where he’s going to get to the rim. He slides between the two of them and is somehow all alone on the other side for an easy bucket. Derrick White was in attack mode all night, practically calling his shot and saying “I’M GOING TO THE BUCKET EVERY TIME TRY AND STOP ME” and they never could.
- DeRozan’s little 3rd quarter explosion was a welcome breath of fresh air. The Nuggets came out of the half clearly having been yelled at by Mike Malone to throw the entire kitchen at Derrick White and they did. Derrick didn’t even get a shot up on the 3rd. Congrats, Denver. This strategy did, of course, leave one of the most prolific scorers in the NBA with essentially single coverage for an entire quarter and you could practically see DeMar’s face light up with the possibilities. He took full advantage of that relative freedom and it was a joy to watch. I particularly liked his high wire act of a dunk where it looked like Jokic was swinging over to ruin everything, only for DeMar to cooly slide by and throw it home.
- Everyone always says that the bench gets shorter in the playoffs and that the advantage of having an elite second unit can sometimes get nullified this time of year. I, being dumb, thought that our rouges gallery of sharpshooters, energy guys, and cagey veterans would be immune to this particular affliction because...well, I just did. Patty’s come up big in the playoffs before and so has Marco. I thought Davis Bertans would be pouring it in from deep to help us extend leads and I assumed that Rudy Gay’s magnificent performance in Game 1 would be the norm and not a blip. That has not been the case so far. Maybe it’s a matchup thing or maybe the rotations being squeezed is throwing everyone out of their rhythm or maybe it’s something else entirely. I don’t know and I don’t have the answers, but it feels like the Spurs are going to need to see a modicum more of production from those guys because, as much as I love Derrick White, I’m not sure we can pencil him in for 36 every game and the Spurs need some points to come from somewhere.
- MARCO WATCH: After that 16-0 run in the 2nd quarter, I had about a minute of really thinking that the Nuggets might just run away with this one. They had all the momentum, they looked comfortable, and what had once been a fired up home crowd was now quietly sipping their drinks while casting furtive glances around at each other. It was bleak. We needed something special to snap us out of our funk and then, in our darkest hour, DeMar pushed into the lane and let the Nuggets defense collapse around him. Out of the corner and, frankly, out of the darkness, a resplendent gunslinger rode into the picture and appeared before us on the wing, wide open and ready to go to work. I’m honestly not sure that DeMar even saw him so much as felt his presence in that moment. The ball flew out of his hands towards Marco as if drawn by a magnetic force and then, in the blink of an eye, it was soaring back through the air and neatly settling home at the bottom of the net. The crowd erupted and, all of a sudden, the game was back on. It was important. It necessary. It was business as usual for Marco Belinelli. This may not be a series in which we will see him light on fire and carry the Spurs to victory single-handedly, but he can instead provide moments of inflection for when things have become flat or stale. He can jump start the team out of a haze and light the spark that ignites the fire that carries us to glory. To quote the Grateful Dead, “Every once in a while you get shown the light, In the strangest of places if you look at it right.”