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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets

Can the Silver and Black replicate their season-opening success when they hit the road for a date with a Western Conference contender?

San Antonio Spurs v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The San Antonio Spurs hit the road for the first time this season as they travel to the great state of Colorado for a date with the Denver Nuggets. And while they tossed around the bottom-dwelling Orlando Magic like a ragdoll in one of the most memorable season-openers in franchise history earlier this week, head coach Mike Malone and company will probably put up a mightier fight.

Nikola Jokic was in MVP form when the Nuggets dispatched last year’s Western Conference Champions to ring in the season. And the Serbian center is all-too-familiar with giving the Silver and Black the business throughout his already decorated career. Denver may be without their second-best player in Jamal Murray for the time being, but they have more than enough depth to make up for his absence.

San Antonio Spurs (1-0) @ Denver Nuggets (1-0)

October 22, 2021 | 8:00 PM CT

Watch: CW35 | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)

Spurs Injuries: Zach Collins (Out — Ankle), Devontae Cacok (Out — Not With Team)

Nuggets Injuries: Jamal Murray (Out — Knee), Vlatko Cancer (Probable — Hip)

Configuring Regular-Season Rotations

For the better part of three quarters, head coach Gregg Popovich ran a strict nine-man rotation of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, Doug McDermott, Jakob Poeltl, Bryn Forbes, Lonnie Walker IV, Devin Vassell, and Drew Eubanks. It wasn’t until San Antonio broke the game wide open that Keita Bates-Diop, Tre Jones, Josh Primo, and Jock Landale finally checked into the contest.

From a lineup standpoint, the Spurs treated their season opener like a playoff series, and it’s worth monitoring whether or not they do the same against Denver. Two-way contract signees Joe Wieskamp and Devontae Cacok never sniffed the floor for the Silver and Black, which isn’t surprising by any means.

But Thaddeus Young, easily the best player of the DeMar DeRozan sign-and-trade with the Bulls, didn’t register a single minute in San Antonio’s 26-point blowout of Orlando. The 14-year veteran was far from a seamless fit during the preseason, though unless the Spurs have a deal on the table to move the seasoned combo forward, benching him doesn’t do much to help his trade value.

Negating Nikola Jokic

Do you know how many players in the 75-year history of the NBA have averaged at least 26 points, ten rebounds, and eight assists per game for an entire season? Only Russell Westbrook in 2016-2017 and Nikola Jokic in 2020-2021, which is probably why both players won MVP at the end of their phenomenal stat-stuffing campaigns.

And on Friday night, the Spurs travel to Denver for a matchup in the house that Jokic built. The 26-year-old point center dominated all three of his matchups with San Antonio a year ago, Sombor Shuffling all over the Silver and Black to the tune of 28.7 points, 10.7 boards, and 9.7 dimes per game.

To be fair, there wasn’t a team in the league that could contain Jokic, and that’s why the Spurs should let Jokic get his while figuring out ways to stop his teammates from getting too involved. Even with Jamal Murray sidelined, keeping Will Barton, Aaron Gordon, and Michael Porter Jr. in check is easier said than done, especially with the best passing big man ever to grace the hardwood running the show.

Facing Real Competition

Head coach Gregg Popovich preached the importance of ball movement, pace, and defensive intensity the second the Spurs opened training camp a little over three weeks ago. San Antonio executed all those concepts to perfection when they hosted the severely shorthanded Magic to kick off the regular season.

The Spurs operating at the third-slowest pace in the NBA on Wednesday felt like a statistical error. But when you take a deeper dive into the advanced numbers, things begin to clear up.

San Antonio’s offensive possessions lasted roughly 13.33 seconds (7th in NBA), which lines up much better with what the eye test suggested. Dejounte Murray and crew were a blur in the open court, and they dismantled Orlando’s defense as they selflessly swung the ball around the horn in search of the best shot available.

On the other end, they averaged about 16.99 seconds per possession (1st in NBA), fantastic news for a team that hasn’t seen a top ten defense in nearly half a decade. San Antonio’s active, intelligent, and switchable defenders bothered the Magic, holding them to 40.7% shooting and forcing them into 16 turnovers.

Now, Orlando isn’t exactly a litmus test for how the rest of the season might play out. After all, most analysts have them pegged as a surefire lottery team, and that was before they showed up to the 2-1-0 down six rotation players. The Nuggets won’t roll over so quickly, and this matchup should be a good indicator of where the Spurs stand compared to the rest of the league.

For the Nuggets fans’ perspective, please 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.