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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Denver Nuggets

Can the Silver and Black get back on track after a gut-wrenching defeat?

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

San Antonio’s bid for a perfect record in Orlando came to an end after they lost a close one to Philadelphia on Monday night. Despite rallying back from a 14 point fourth-quarter deficit, the Spurs’ late-game slip ups resulted in their downfall, and a missed shot-clock violation on behalf of the 76ers earlier in the contest only compounded on what was a disappointing ending.

Their first three seeding games have gone down to the wire, and the Silver and Black will be looking to improve to 3-1 in the bubble as they fight to keep their playoff streak alive. Unfortunately for San Antonio, their road to the postseason doesn’t get any easier, as their next opponent, the third-place Denver Nuggets are coming off of a win, sporting a 44-23 record.

Both squads are shorthanded, and the absence of each franchise’s second-leading scorer ought to ensure a strikingly different on-court product from their first meeting back in February. There will be an almost 40 point void to fill between the two teams with LaMarcus Aldridge and Jamal Murray sidelined, so what can we expect from the next men up?

San Antonio Spurs (29-37) vs. Denver Nuggets (44-23)

August 5, 2020 | 3:00 PM CT

Watch: FSSW | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)

Spurs Injuries: LaMarcus Aldridge (Shoulder - Out), Trey Lyles (Appendix - Out), Bryn Forbes (Quad - Out), Marco Belinelli (Foot - Day-to-Day)

Nuggets Injuries: Jamal Murray (Hamstring - Questionable), Will Barton (Knee - Out), Gary Harris (Hip - Out), Vlatko Cancar (Foot - Day-to-Day)

Keeping Poeltl Out of Foul Trouble

While Spurs fared relatively well with LaMarcus Aldridge and Trey Lyles sidelined for the first two seeding games, Philadelphia exposed San Antonio’s lack of frontcourt depth on Monday night. After fouling out in the previous outing, Jakob Poeltl found himself in foul trouble once again, eventually fouling out for the second straight contest.

Drew Eubanks filled in admirably for Poeltl, but standing at six-nine, the second-year big man is massively undersized when faced with the task of defending true seven-footers. Joel Embiid had his way with anyone the Silver and Black threw at him, and All-Star center Nikola Jokic could be primed for an outburst if Jakob can’t stay on the floor.

As if containing Nikola Jokic wasn’t tough enough on its own, the Denver Nuggets own the fourth-tallest roster in the NBA. And though their band of sky-scraping bigs encourages a strange brand of tall-ball as the league continues to get smaller, their mix of height and skill gives them a massive advantage over the shorthanded Spurs.

Playing Up-Tempo Basketball

As I mentioned above, Denver rosters an imposing group of oversized playmakers, but San Antonio might have the personnel to give them a legitimate challenge. Breakneck teams like the Hawks, Nets, Grizzlies, and Wizards picked up wins against the deliberate-paced Nuggets, and with the Spurs turning towards a youth-movement in Orlando, the good guys have no shortage of spry legs.

Despite ranking 15th in pace before the hiatus, San Antonio has turned up the tempo and vaulted to the sixth-highest pace in the association since the league restart. Denver, on the other hand, sits second-to-last in pace in the bubble, though they have added about one more possession per game over their last three contests.

Between Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, and Keldon Johnson, the Spurs more than enough speed to make opposing teams pay for lax transition defense. Of course, the young core will still need to cut down on turnovers and clean up their play, but Popovich and crew could use their stylistic shift to gain an edge.

Mitigating Michael Porter Jr.

Coming off a career-high 37 points against the Thunder, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging 24.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 2.0 assists for a Nuggets team that split their first two matchups in the bubble. The rookie struggled to generate momentum before play paused, but out of necessity, the 2018 first-rounder has picked up the slack with Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Will Barton sidelined.

The smaller and similarly undermanned Spurs will be without LaMarcus Aldridge, Trey Lyles, Bryn Forbes, and possibly Marco Belinelli. That likely leaves DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay with the hurdle of stopping the upstart Porter, and considering both have battled with defensive inconsistency all season, coach Pop could ask Derrick White or Keldon Johnson to guard up a few positions.

DeMar and the Young Core

Speaking of White and Johnson, the pair have increased their production for San Antonio, with Keldon exploding for a career-high 15 points versus Philly and Derrick posting nearly 21-5-5 on 47-48-79 shooting splits over his last three games. Not only have they improved their offensive output, but the duo has laid their bodies on the line, taking charges and diving for loose balls with stunning frequency.

And I can’t pass up an opportunity to praise DeMar DeRozan for being instrumental to the success of the young core. The four-time All-Star has picked his spots carefully, taken a backseat when necessary, and come in clutch down the stretch. Although his 30 point effort went to waste in the Philly loss, he almost singlehandedly carried the Spurs to victory.

DeJounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV had an off night last go-round, and the former committed a couple of costly mistakes down the stretch, though the baby-faced guards have mostly made the best of their newfound opportunities. Denver won’t be as effective defending the perimeter if they’re without Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and Gary Harris, so look for Dejounte and Lonnie to bounce back.

For the Nuggets fans’ perspective, visit Denver Stiffs.

PtR’s Gamethread will be up this evening for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.