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Spurs fight hard but fall short against bigger, better Nuggets

The Spurs played well, but ultimately lacked the firepower and the length to beat a quality opponent.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After battling courageously for most of the game, the Spurs simply couldn’t keep up with the Nuggets late. The 132-126 loss against Denver was completely expected but still painful, as now the margin of error in the battle for a place in the postseason has been reduced significantly.

The theme of the game was that everything came easy on both ends for the Nuggets and was a struggle for the Spurs. Whenever the Silver and Black didn’t play with urgency, Denver thrived. It became clear early on, as the starters came out looking a bit lethargic and paid for it by surrendering a quick run. Gregg Popovich reacted swiftly by sending out five reserves to stop the bleeding, and it paid off. The bigger frontcourt of Rudy Gay and Drew Eubanks competed better on defense, and with Gay leading the way on offense, San Antonio clawed back to make it close. The Nuggets helped them along the way by missing open looks from outside, but the relentlessness that has characterized the Bubble Spurs was on full display in the opening frame.

With DeMar DeRozan and Derrick White playing much better in the second quarter on both ends and Gay remaining hot, the Spurs actually took control of the game for a while. The Nuggets could still get whatever they wanted on offense, but instead of going for simple plays they forced passes and continued to miss on a lot of the outside shots San Antonio was surrendering. Unfortunately, even in the moments in which the Nuggets weren’t sharp, the size advantage they had was enough to keep them in it. Some offensive rebounds, easy buckets inside, and stops at the rim were all they needed to keep the Spurs from truly getting momentum on their side. The Silver and Black had to labor intensely just to get a three-point lead at the half while Denver seemingly didn’t break a sweat.

For a few minutes in the third quarter, it seemed like the Spurs could maybe just outwork a superior opponent all the way to victory. The Nuggets looked sluggish after the break and let San Antonio get a nine-point lead at one point. White was making plays on both ends, and it felt like if only DeRozan could put together another sublime second-half performance, the win was attainable. Alas, it was Denver’s star who would prove to be the catalyst for its team. Nikola Jokic completely took over on offense to carry his team through its worst stretch of the game, and not even a sustained effort from the Spurs was enough to hold on to the separation that they worked so hard to achieve in the first place. The score was even going into the final period.

The Nuggets never trailed in the last 12 minutes, after Jerami Grant opened up the frame with a three-pointer. It took everything the Spurs had to keep them in the game for the first three quarters, and their last push only got them a tie with just under nine minutes to go in the game. From then on Denver’s forwards continued to benefit from a comically favorable matchup to help Jokic secure the win. The Nuggets never really carved out a huge lead, but were never at risk of losing the game, either. The few questionable calls that went their way late certainly helped them close it out without suspense, but ultimately the Spurs simply couldn’t make up for their lack of size and top tier talent, which was as predictable as it was difficult to stomach in real time.

Game notes

  • DeMar DeRozan had 18 points on 11 shots and eight assists. The only reason why it seems like he had a bad night is because in past games he looked capable of taking over, and he simply didn’t have that extra gear on Wednesday. It was still encouraging to see him try hard on defense, at least for stretches.
  • Rudy Gay and Patty Mills were terrific in the first half, but faded a little as the minutes went on. Still, very good performances for the veterans, who finished with 24 and 14 points respectively off the bench.
  • No game in which White takes 10 three-pointers is a bad one, no matter the result. He’s still great as a pick and roll player and continues to be a pest on defense with his ability to draw charges, but it now seems like he’s truly become a shooter as well. All he has to do now to be the indisputable best player on the team is prove he can be consistent.
  • Speaking of consistency, it continues to be an issue for Dejounte Murray and Lonnie Walker IV. They typically have at least a few moments of brilliance every game, but it’s impossible to know what the team is going to get from them night-in and night-out. On Wednesday, Murray was downright bad while Walker was barely noticeable. The Spurs will need more from two potential cornerstones going forward.
  • On the bright side, other young players looked good. Keldon Johnson needed a couple of garbage time buckets to reach his career-high 20 points, but at this point his rebounding and physicality have made him a key rotation player. As for Drew Eubanks, he was extremely valuable off the bench against tough competition and seems to be more confident than ever.
  • Eubanks’ good play was needed, because Jakob Poeltl just didn’t have it on Wednesday. It’s fair to assume that fatigue might be starting to be a problem for him, since he’s not used to playing as much as he has recently. Hopefully that’s not actually the case and he just had a bad game.
  • I feel for Bill Land. Having to call the games from a screen has been tough on him. He’s confused Eubanks and Poeltl a bunch of times, has struggled figuring out if buckets are threes or twos, and at times can’t figure out what the officials have called. You can tell it bothers him when he misses stuff. Hang in there, Bill!

Next up: vs. the Jazz on Friday.

The Spurs will face the Jazz in their first of two matchups in the bubble. They’ll need to somehow get a win for their postseason chances to remain realistic, so let’s hope they have another heroic game in them.