After losing a pivotal Game 5, the Spurs found themselves on the edge of elimination. The Nuggets appeared to have figured them out leaving the entire season to hinge on Game 6, which is why many were hoping for some big adjustment that could change the series.
Fortunately there was no need for a magical tactical move. Pop did make a couple of relatively small tweaks that ultimately worked, but the Spurs still needed good fortune and an outlier performance to equalize the series.
Game 6 was proof that adjustments, as fetishized as they are in the playoffs, can help, but are not enough on their own.
Not doubling Jokic only worked because the Nuggets missed shots
The Spurs decided to only double Nikola Jokic occasionally and typically late in possessions in Game 6 after aggressively sending help earlier in the series. Jokic went off for 43 point and dished out nine assists but the Nuggets as a team took just 24 three-point attempts and converted on 25 percent of them, which suggests the trade-off was worth it. San Antonio also tried to contain the pick and roll using just two men instead of sending help. As a result they got burned at times by ball handlers on short jumpers, and they conceded some offensive rebounds when the big man got out of position trying to contest, but on the whole they accomplished the goal of not giving up threes, shots directly at the rim or free throws. At a glance, the adjustment worked beautifully.
In reality, the Spurs were pretty lucky. Jokic could have done much more damage despite the strategy. Jakob Poeltl did reasonably well guarding him. He held him to “just” 20 points on 18 shots and three assists to two turnovers when he was matched up with him, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. LaMarcus Aldridge, meanwhile, wasn’t effective at all guarding the Joker. LA allowed Jokic 17 points in nine shots and four assists to zero turnovers. While the Nuggets scored just a point per possession when Jakob was on Jokic, they went nuts on offense when Aldridge tried to cover him, scoring a ridiculous 1.43 points per possession. The Spurs didn’t really contain Jokic in any way. In fact he might have gone for 50 had Jakob Poeltl, who struggled with foul trouble, been forced to rest more.
As for the outside shooting, while the Nuggets took just 24 three-pointers, 13 were open (no defender within four to six feet) and 10 were wide open (no defender within six feet or more), according to NBA.com/Stats. They connected on only six of those. That’s 26 percent. During the regular season they hit 35 percent of those types of looks and during the playoffs, prior to Game 6, they had hit almost 41 percent of those. Had Denver not regressed at the worst possible time, they might have gotten the win. The Spurs had little to do with these misses.
Despite the tweaks, San Antonio’s defense wasn’t all that good. Denver had an offensive rating of 118.8 outside of garbage time despite being cartoonishly incompetent in the stretch that sealed the game, which not coincidentally came with Jokic resting.
Benching Bertans worked mostly because Rudy Gay snapped out of his funk at the right time
The other tweak the Spurs made had to do with their rotation. Gregg Popovich decided to bench Davis Bertans. Going by the numbers alone, it was a curious decision. Davis had one of the best on/off splits on the team and, while he wasn’t attempting or hitting many threes, his range kept defenders glued to him. In a series where shooting has been hard to come by for San Antonio, benching such an accomplished sniper was risky. Fortunately, the Spurs didn’t miss his marksmanship, as they got some unlikely contributors to make up for Bertans’ absence. Derrick White (3-for-10 from outside before Game 6) hit a couple of threes and LaMarcus Aldridge (2-for-8 beyond the arc before Game 6) connected on one.
But the main reason why the Spurs didn’t suffer at all despite shortening their forward rotation was the play of Rudy Gay. The veteran combo forward had his best game of the series, scoring 19 points on 11 shots. He got to play with the starters more, a setting in which he’s just a complementary player instead of a primary creator. As a result he got some easier shots. Gay had gotten just three corner three attempts in the first six games combined and got three in Game 6 alone, two on plays created for him on the pick and roll and one in transition. He connected on all of them, essentially filling the role Davis typically fills while also doing Rudy Gay things like score from mid-range on mismatches when Paul Millsap rested or switched screens to deter dribble penetration.
While he really struggled on defense, especially when matched up with Millsap, his offense was so efficient that it didn’t matter. It was truly a great performance. It was also incredibly unusual. Gay has scored at least 19 points on 11 shots or fewer to go with two assists just five times in 879 career games. He surprisingly had a similarly efficient game from the floor in Game 1, but he struggled with turnovers on that occasion. It’s just not normal for him to have nights like the one he had Thursday, in which he wastes so few possessions. His big night made Bertans a complete afterthought.
Had Gay played a more normal game and had some factors beyond the Spurs control — Malone’s reluctance to have Millsap attack Rudy stands out — gone the other way, maybe the decision to bench the guy with the best net rating in the series would be getting scrutinized right now. Instead, Gay is rightfully getting props for coming up big when the Spurs needed it the most.
Adjustments are good, but luck and individual brilliance are better
The two tweaks Pop made were smart. Jokic can be a little passive at times, so daring him to beat the Spurs with his scoring made sense. Focusing on stopping Denver’s three-point shooting even if it meant allowing him and the ball handlers good looks close to the basket was a decent plan. The same goes for benching Bertans, who had been rendered largely ineffective by the Nuggets’ decision to play small units against him and have a wing guard him.
It’s hard to argue with Pop’s decisions now, with the benefit of hindsight, but had a couple of threes gone in for the Nuggets and had Rudy missed a few shots, they’d be questioned, no matter how rational they were. Ultimately, good fortune and individual performances matter more than we care to admit. The Spurs got lucky and had a few guys playing at a superlative level and that’s why the won.
In no way does that diminish the accomplishment. Teams that don’t have a huge edge in talent need their players to outperform expectations (and the Basketball Gods to smile upon them) in order to emerge victorious — no matter how good their game plan is. All three factors lined up for the Spurs in Game 6 and the result was a win. Now let’s hope it happen again on Saturday.