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Making sense of the Spurs vs. Nuggets series so far

The PtR staff takes a look at what the Spurs have done well, what they’ve struggled with and what they need to do going forward to beat the Nuggets.

NBA: Playoffs-Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Nuggets and Spurs are tied after the first four games of an unpredictable series. Both teams have had flaws exposed, but neither has cracked under the postseason pressure yet. Denver had to get past its inexperience to even the series after it seemed to be slipping away. San Antonio, meanwhile, had a golden opportunity to take a commanding lead but inconsistency proved to be their undoing.

As the series enters its final stretch, both coaches are well into figuring out how to hide their team’s weaknesses and highlight their strengths. Adjustments could be crucial, but neither squad wants to be the first to overreact and get away from its core principles. Finding that delicate balance is the challenge facing Michael Malone and Gregg Popovich.

With a pivotal Game 5 looming, PtR Contributors Marilyn Dubinski, Mark Barrington, Bruno Passos and Jesus Gomez join Editor-in Chief J.R. Wilco look back to the games already in the books and Tuesday night’s, hoping to make sense of it all, in this edition of In The Bonus.

Are you surprised the series is tied at two?

Marilyn Dubinski: I’m not surprised that it’s 2-2, but it has definitely been an interesting ride getting here. I felt confident they’d win one of the two in Denver, which they did, although the way they lost Game 2 was rough. After dominating Game 3 and opening Game 4 strong as the Nuggets started looking more dejected, it seemed like they might get a firm grasp on this series, but this time the Nuggets went on their expected run, and the Spurs never responded. In the grand scheme of things (considering it feels like it could just as easily be 3-1 or 1-3) 2-2 seems about right.

Mark Barrington: I’m not surprised with the destination, but the journey has been unexpected. Game 1 was a surprise, I expected the Spurs to get game 2. I’m not surprised that much that the Spurs dropped a game at home, but I’m still a little disappointed at how bad they looked in the loss.

Bruno Passos: I’m surprised by how it got here, with both teams losing one at home, Derrick White’s continued ascendance and the Spurs bench being outplayed by as much as it has, but I predicted a 7-game series and it looks like that’s the direction we’re headed in.

Jesus Gomez: I’m somewhat surprised, but pleasantly so. I thought the Nuggets would win both in Denver, since they were the best home team in the league in the regular season, and one in San Antonio to take control of the series. I guess I forgot to account for their inexperience and the Spurs’ pluckiness. I’m definitely glad I was wrong.

J.R. Wilco: Surprised? No, I’m pleased. I’d have preferred to be ecstatic at 3-1, but I’m good as is. You know where you are with 2-2, it’s a 3 game series and the teams have proved to be equally matched to this point. I certainly like the I’ll-win-this-one-you-take-the-next thing they’re currently working on, but I’d prefer not to have to go all week until a Saturday game in Denver to find out who advances.

What have the Spurs done better than you expected so far?

Dubinski: They’ve moved the ball well on offense, getting 20 or more assists in every game. A lot of that is thanks to Derrick White being the main ball handler and LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan picking their spots to take over while keeping everyone involved, but in this series alone this team has shown more glimpses of the “Beautiful Game” Spurs than they did the entire season. (That might be hyperbole, but not by much.)

Passos: The defense has held up better than expected overall, from containing the point of attack to closing possessions on the boards, where the Spurs have been the 4th best defensive rebounding team in the postseason while playing against the best offensive rebounding team of the regular season. White and Jakob Poeltl are a big part of that, both in their individual defense and in containing the Murray-Jokic pick and roll, but I’m generally happy with their performance on that end in spite of the last 3 quarters of Game 4.

Gomez: They’ve attacked the rim and finished better than I expected. White has been a huge reason why, but the entire team has been able to make the Nuggets pay inside when they fail to rotate in time. The defensive rebounding has been impressive, too, especially against an opponent that makes it a point to crash the offensive glass.

Wilco: Win without being utterly dependent on LMA and DmDr. Before the series, I’d have said that the Spurs needed heavy doses of production from their two linchpins in order to close out games, and while the stars have played fine, they haven’t exploded yet — which bodes well. A tight series through four games without big-time performances from your best players means that a number of things are going well for your team.

What have the Spurs done worse than you expected so far?

Dubinski: The bench has been a serious letdown. Rudy Gay was good in Game 1 but has been passive ever since. Patty Mills’ energy is there, and he was one of few who played hard for all of Game 4, but he hasn’t been finding many shots. Perhaps the biggest disappointments have been Marco Belinelli and Davis Bertans. Neither have contributed much of anything in this series, and the Spurs need them to step up and hit shots when the starters are resting. There’s a reason the pattern of nearly every game has been a strong Spurs start followed by a big Nuggets run, and the bench needs to buck that trend.

Barrington: They’ve been both better and worse than I expected so far. One thing you can usually expect from a Popovich coached team is consistency, and that’s what the Spurs have been lacking so far. I have no idea which team will show up on a given night, but I kind of hope it’s going to be the game 3 Spurs who have their act together, instead of the game 4 gang who can’t shoot straight, or the game 2 fourth-quarter squad that can’t stop anything.

Passos: I’m not sure if this holds up with numbers or other people’s observations, but the close-outs on shooters — particularly on corner threes — haven’t been great. That may be part of the scheme, but the Nuggets seem to have caught on that they can step into their looks with a bit more confidence, and they’ve made SA pay.

Gomez: The transition defense has been really bad after Game 1. It’s something the Spurs need to clean up in order to win the series, since they can’t let the Nuggets make up on the break for the inside buckets they sometimes struggle to get in the half court. The three-point shooting has been poor, but I feel like Denver deserves credit for closing out strong and chasing guys off the arc, something the Spurs would benefit from emulating.

Wilco: The incredible shrinking bench has been disappointing. I thought Rudy Gay would be a catalyst/x-factor in the series. I’d hoped for Davis Bertans to announce himself on the postseason stage. I was looking forward to seeing Marco keying a pass-happy second unit that would slake my thirst for Beautiful Basketball. But none of those things have happened.

What’s one adjustment you’d like to see in Game 5?

Dubinski: This isn’t really an adjustment for the whole series as much as it is going back to what they were doing before Game 4: keep attacking the rim. Nikola Jokic is slow-footed and has a tendency to come too far out, so keep driving and going right at him with the pick-and-roll. Worst case you get to the line more or he tires out quicker.

Barrington: The Spurs lost their composure in game 4. They need to play under control in game 5 and keep their cool. It’s not often that you see a Popovich-coached team lose their emotional bearings, but it happened in game 4. They have to get it back under control in game 5, and it’s going to be a real challenge to do that in the hostile atmosphere of the Pepsi Center.

Passos: I’m not sure there’s anything uniquely tactical to be done, although I’d like to see the Spurs attack the Nuggets’ weaknesses a bit more on offense. Whether it’s putting Jamal Murray through as many screens as possible or going at Jokic more in the pick and roll, it’d be nice to see San Antonio force Denver to adapt to their game.

Gomez: I’d love to see more screening between the perimeter players. The Nuggets focusing on stopping White would have been a good thing had Michael Malone not started Torrey Craig. Now Denver gets to have good, long defenders on both DeRozan and Derrick. Maybe having Forbes screen for one of those two can force switches that can be exploited. Other than that, I’d love to see the shooters taking the first good shot available. They’ve been trying to make the extra pass, which is typically the right move, but the Nuggets are good at scrambling back. Just let them fly if you are open.

Wilco: Maybe try to tire out Murray by running his man through a gauntlet of screens? They seem to be trying to hide him on Forbes at times. That should either pay dividends in the second half, or it’ll free Forbes, or it’ll yield a switch that will allow someone else to feast on Jamal’s lackluster defense.

What’s the key to victory for the Spurs in Game 5 and the rest of the series?

Dubinski: The key is getting Derrick White back to dominating Jamal Murray. That has been the game-deciding match-up in each game so far, and I see no reason why that will change. Beyond that, if the Spurs can just shoot their threes and free throws better it would certainly help a lot.

Barrington: The Spurs have to regain control of their emotions. If they allow the Nuggets and the home crowd to dictate how the game is played, they’ve already lost. They have to play under control and make the Nuggets play at the Spurs’ pace.

Passos: The Spurs need to be good or great in a lot of areas, but if I’m to pick one, I’ll go with Derrick White. He opens things up for everyone on offense and can take at least one of the Nuggets’ perimeter scorers off the board with an A-level defensive game. It’s more than anyone should ask for a player with his experience, but that’s probably where this team’s at.

Gomez: I keep going back to bench scoring and transition defense. The starters have been surprisingly good so far, after struggling for most of the season. The bench needs to come in and get buckets, especially from outside, to give the team that extra gear. If the bench outscores the Nuggets’ and Denver is forced to deal with San Antonio’s half court defense, I like the Spurs’ odds.

Wilco: Find a way to require Denver to pay simultaneous attention to Aldridge, DeRozan and White. If all three of those guys are playing off each other, then it’ll be good times in San Antonio.