The Spurs squeaked out a late victory in a back-and-forth battle with a talented Celtics ball club, overcoming a second-half surge from Boston and their dynamic duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. San Antonio squandered a 14-point lead but bounced back down the stretch behind some clutch contributions from the trio of Keldon Johnson, Dejounte Murray, and DeMar DeRozan.
Keldon stuffed home a rim-rocker that tied up the game and gave the Silver and Black all the momentum. DeRozan knocked down a go-ahead mid-range jumper with less than a minute remaining in regulation a few moments later. And Dejounte sealed the deal with his patented poke away slam on the ensuing possession. Together the trio combined for 50 points and shouldered the load in crunch time.
Next up for the Spurs is a meeting with emerging MVP candidate Nikola Jokic and the white-hot Nuggets within the friendly confines of the AT&T Center. Although the good guys have strung together a couple of wins a row, Denver is in the middle of an impressive five-game winning streak, and they won’t be an easy out, especially with a SEGABABA versus the upstart Grizzlies awaiting San Antonio.
San Antonio Spurs (10-8) vs. Denver Nuggets (11-7)
January 29, 2021 | 7:30 PM CST
Watch: FSSW | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)
Spurs Injuries: Derrick White (Questionable — Toe)
Nuggets Injuries: P.J. Dozier (Day-to-Day — Hamstring), Gregg Whittington (Out — Knee)
Containing Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic is on the precipice of becoming the third player in league history to average a triple-double for an entire season. He’s facilitating the offense to near perfection, showing off his new-found scoring aptitude, and the 25-year-old point-center is quickly putting his name in the MVP discussion. And while San Antonio has plenty of reliable wing defenders, they have struggled to contain even above-average big men.
Luckily for the Spurs, most of their issues appear to stem from a colossal gap in athletic ability between LaMarcus Aldridge, Jakob Poeltl, and the opposing bigs, and Jokic is far from a physical force of nature. With that said, the Serbian seven-footer is posting a career-high 25.2 points per game thus far, and only Joel Embiid has been successful at making him uncomfortable. So who can coach Pop turn to if he wants to stop him?
It may not be an ideal solution, but Poeltl is probably the best answer for Nikola’s signature Sombor Shuffle. Jakob has held Jokic to 103 points on 48.8% shooting as a primary defender in 15 career matchups between the two towering Europeans. Although those numbers might not sound like much, they’re better than what LaMarcus has had to offer. And given their massive height disparity, it’s tough to trust Trey Lyles or Drew Eubanks.
Slowing down Jokic is only one of several obstacles the Spurs will have to hurdle. With transcendent court vision, impeccable passing chops, and a nose for offensive rebounds, the Nuggets’ superstar is liable to create wide-open looks and second-chance opportunities for his teammates on any possession. And that doesn’t take into account the individual damage Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. can do when they catch fire.
Using Depth to their Advantage
Denver is more than just Nikola Jokic, and they have 14 other guys who San Antonio’s scouting department undoubtedly got familiar with when preparing for this contest. Head coach Mike Malone has a rotation full of guys who put up double-digit points per game. And the Spurs shouldn’t expect to win if they lose track of Gary Harris, Will Barton, Monte Morris, JaMychal Green, or Paul Milsap.
Depth is one of the primary reasons the Nuggets own the third-best offensive rating (115.2) in the NBA. However, the Spurs also have a surplus of capable reserves, and the potential return of Derrick White might make the Silver and Black the deepest team in the league. The Colorado alum torched Denver in the playoffs a few years ago, and he could be in for a big night if he suits up for this one. (UPDATE: White is officially listed as OUT now.)
Attacking the Interior
Heading into their tilt with the Celtics, the Spurs were the least efficient team at scoring at the rim. But by the end of the evening, San Antonio rose from the bottom spot and into 25th place after taking advantage of Boston’s flimsy interior defense. The good guys converted 81.8% of their shot attempts inside the painted area, and they might very well have a chance to do the same against a Nuggets team devoid of a rim protector.
Denver has allowed their opponents to shoot a league-high 66.2% from within five feet of the basket, and Popovich and company shouldn’t hesitate to draw up a game-plan centered around getting to the tin. In theory, if the Silver and Black can punish the Nuggets in the restricted area, then it might provide them with clean looks beyond the arc if Denver swarms the paint to deter drives.