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What we learned from the Spurs loss to the Nuggets

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The Spurs ran out of oxygen in the Mile High City.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

No one should be too surprised by this outcome. Maybe a wall-to-wall blowout was unexpected, but this Spurs / Nuggets match-up has looked like a scheduled loss for weeks now. Even though both teams coming off a SEGABABA in different cities may have made it seem like the playing field would be a little more level than usual when traveling to the Mile High City, the Spurs were the ones who were out of gas.

While they were coming off a win at home against Atlanta, it was a close game that saw LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan play 38 and 36 minutes, respectively, plus another 31 for Derrick White. On the other hand, the Nuggets were blown out in a game against Golden State that started two hours later, but no one reached the 30-minute mark in playing time for Denver.

Combine that with their familiarity of the high altitude and the Spurs’ well documented road struggles, and this game was not set up to go their way. All the usual struggles that teams face when playing in Denver (especially with no time to acclimate) were there: heavy legs, sluggish ball movement, passes sailing high, shots flying all over the place, etc. Of course, this is by no means a way of excusing this loss. It was a costly one that put the Spurs back behind the Thunder in the standings and a third-straight playoff series against the Warriors now staring them in the face.

However, this game didn’t have to be a must-win. The Spurs have shown they can (and usually do) elevate their game against playoff-level competition. If they had done the same against inferior competition throughout the season, or even just in the last few weeks, this could have been a scheduled rest game in which we accepted the loss long ago. It bared all the hallmarks of a game Pop would have rested his stars had the situation allowed for it: a back-to-back, in Denver, not wanting to show all his cards to a potential playoff opponent, and so on.

The point is by itself, this was not a maddening loss. Nothing heading into this game was in the Spurs’ favor other than the timing of the prior night’s games, and no one wants to play an angry team with championship aspirations coming back home with something to prove.

What’s maddening is the Spurs’ inability to take care of business against the teams they should, which made this game more important than it had to be. They have three more chances to make up for those struggles this season with games in Washington, Cleveland and at home against a Mavericks team that refuses to go quietly into the night but the Spurs have beaten all three times so far this season.

With the Thunder facing a much tougher closing schedule (Pistons, at Timberwolves, Rockets, at Bucks), the Spurs may no longer control their own destiny in the technical sense but should have every opportunity to move back up in the standings. It is up to them to show enough determination to make that happen, and if they don’t they’ll get exactly what they earned in these final few weeks of the regular season: another date in Golden State.

Takeaways

  • After a particularly bad second quarter had the Spurs coming out of halftime in an 18-point hole, they tried something on the Nuggets that several teams have done to them lately: throw off their hot shooting by switching to a zone defense. For the first few minutes, it appeared to be working. The Nuggets missed their first five shots of the third quarter while struggling to find the open looks they had in the first half. DeRozan got aggressive on offense, and ever so briefly the Spurs gave the illusion that they weren’t going to go down that easily, dropping the lead to 14 on multiple occasions. However, it was short lived as Denver quickly rediscovered their groove and had the Spurs pulling their starters for good midway through the third quarter.
  • Did the NBA destroy Davis Bertans when they snubbed him from the three-point shootout? He just hasn’t been the same since the All-Star break. Not only has his level of play and confidence visibly dropped since February 22, but the numbers back it up. Before the break, he was averaging 7 points on 48.4% shooting, 48.1% from three. In the 19 games since then, his numbers have dropped to 6.7 points on 35.5% shooting, 32.3% from three. It has been emphasized many times lately how important the role players are to this team’s success, specifically the six players after the Mid Three in the main rotation, and none have been more disappointing than Bertans in that time span. He had a little third quarter flurry last night where he hit three shots in a two minute span — a dunk and two mid-range jumpers: enough to get the Spurs within 17 and make the Nuggets put their feet back on the gas — but he was still 0-4 from three on the night. His performance is just as vital to the Spurs as Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills, and Marco Belinelli, and he needs to shoot with confidence without deferring. His defense has come a long way this season, now the next step in his career is the one word everyone has been tagged with lately: consistency.
  • LONNIE WATCH! On this rare occasion, there is no Marco Watch to be had. He laid a goose egg on the scoring chart, and his only other record-able stats were a rebound, assist, foul and two turnovers. Instead, we’re doing something we haven’t done this season (outside of the G-League) but hopefully will have a chance to do many times in the future: Lonnie Watch! Ignore the fact that his career-high 16 points came in garbage time of a blowout loss. He’s played in garbage time before and hasn’t done much. This time, he played 16 straight minutes, which included some time against the Nuggets’ starters (whom Mike Malone didn’t completely pull until there were about 6 minutes left in the game), and you could just see his confidence grow was he went from a full-court sprint for a lay-up to tossing in threes like it’s nothing — something the rest of the team just couldn’t do last night. We won’t see much more of him this season, but remember: the future is bright. If White can make this kind of second-year leap, imagine what a much more gifted talent like Lonnie Walker IV can do. . .