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Spurs come out hot, hold on against Nuggets

A surging San Antonio squad banked another quality win behind a hot first quarter and 56 combined points from DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray.

Denver Nuggets v San Antonio Spurs Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

The urge after seeing another Spurs win over a Quality Team—in this case, a 119-109 victory over the Denver Nuggets—and maybe that number 4 currently next to their name in the conference standings, is to overthink things. Has Dejounte Murray turned the corner? How does this young core stack up against every other team’s? Is this team good—like, good-good? Dwell on these questions mid-game and you’ll probably miss a Murray pick-six or Keldon Johnson Bullet Billing his way to the rim.

Friday’s win against a streaking but road-weary Denver squad (this was their last leg in a five-game road trip) had many of the features that have propped up this plucky 11-8 start to the season. San Antonio defended with constant intensity and increasing cohesion; the young guys made things happen in the open court; DeMar DeRozan anchored just enough possessions with his own brand of basketball efficiency; the team on the whole attacked the rim.

The Spurs couldn’t have gotten off to a much hotter start than they did in their 37-point first quarter, making 13 of 18 from the field, and 6 of 7 from beyond the arc. Their lead ballooned to double figures in the 2nd despite Denver being nearly as impressive shooting the ball, with DeRozan (30 points, 10 assists on the night), Dejounte Murray (26 points) and Patty Mills (17 points) doing much of the heavy lifting in the first half.

Credit the Nuggets for fighting, wresting the lead away in the 3rd quarter and keeping things close for most of the 4th. Nikola Jokic led all scorers with 35 points and didn’t seem to care whether it was LaMarcus Aldridge or Jakob Poeltl guarding him, as he picked, popped, and posted up. Jamal Murray, dealing with various dings, chipped in 20 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds.

The Spurs defense did what it could to collectively make life difficult for Jokic, sending a number of double teams his way and often coming out on top. The Nuggets center threw at least a couple of live-ball turnovers that triggered Spurs fast breaks, and he was rarely able to find passing lanes and pick San Antonio apart like he has in the past.

On the other end, San Antonio regularly went after Jokic in the pick and roll or when he was parked under the basket. Gregg Popovich has talked about the importance of his team attacking north-to-south, and the shot chart from the night illustrates how well they were able to do so against a team lacking meaningful rim protection:

The Nuggets’ liberal use of zone managed to slow the Spurs for stretches, eliminating some of the seams they’d attacked for much of the night. But whether it was DeRozan Eurostepping his way around bodies or Johnson bulldozing through them, the Spurs found ways to generate enough points whenever the offense got stuck in the mud.

This is a fun, weird Spurs team that seems to be figuring itself out, mostly by having fun and leaning into the weird. Their best passer is their de facto small forward; they can beat you a dozen different ways but don’t really have one go-to play to turn to in the closing seconds of a game; their top two rebounders are shorter than 6-6; the bench usually carries the starters across the finish line; they already had a lot of active guards and are poised to welcome back one of their best from injury. What does that all add up to? I look forward to mulling that over eventually.

Closing points

  • Murray’s aggressiveness and improved finishing remains a revelation, and Nikola Jokic as the last line of defense didn’t change that. Murray’s first 10 points were all created off dribble penetration and set the tone for how he attacked the Denver D.
  • Typically on the wrong end of superstar calls, Jakob Poeltl stepped in front of a plodding Nikola Jokic in the 2nd quarter and surprisingly finessed a charge call. Like usual, he was quiet on the stat sheet (4 points, 6 boards) but had a hand in some of the team’s better stops throughout the game. His poor free-throw shooting, however, led to Mike Malone applying some Hack a Jak in the 4th quarter, forcing him to the bench.
  • Keldon Johnson pulled down 4 more offensive rebounds on Friday. Johnson came into the night with more offensive rebounds than anyone 6-7 or shorter, and remains a weapon, especially when following his own miss on drives.
  • Lonnie Walker exited the game after hurting his back, but returned after getting wrapped in ice.
  • The Spurs’ perimeter defense should only continue get better as the young guys communicate better. One area they seem to already be improving in is helping at the nail against dribble penetration and then recovering. It doesn’t always lead to anything in the box score but San Antonio threw off a handful of offensive possessions by being where they needed to be and helping each other repeatedly.
  • The versatility of Johnson’s finishes is impressive. He has the ability to power through just about anyone but he had a couple of first-half baseline drives where he was forced to adjust to avoid contact, and he still managed to score.
  • Johnson hit a stepback in the game’s closing minutes, something you wonder we might see more of in the years to come. Reminder: he’s just 21.