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Spurs show heart but can’t overcome offensive struggles in close loss to the Nuggets

After a great showing in opening night, bad three-point shooting and too many turnovers made it impossible for the Spurs to upset a similarly sloppy Nuggets team on the road.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Despite fighting until the end, the Spurs couldn’t escape Denver with a win against the Nuggets. Reigning MVP Nikola Jokic carried the team on his back en route to a victory over a pesky San Antonio team that refused to go away until the final moments.

After an extremely fun opening night game, both teams reminded us that early season basketball can be extremely sloppy by looking out of sorts on offense. The Nuggets tried to get Aaron Gordon going to no avail, while the Spurs simply couldn’t get enough fastbreak opportunities to make up for their woes in the half court. Despite the chaos, both teams managed to identify and capitalize on minor advantages. Denver got Jakob Poeltl in foul trouble, which severely handicapped San Antonio’s defense, and forced turnovers. The Silver and Black, meanwhile, exploited favorable individual matchups to bail out the offense at different times, with Keldon Johnson and Dejounte Murray doing most of the work. In the end, neither squad could impose its will in the opening period.

The normally weak Denver second unit started off well against a Spurs lineup that couldn’t get enough ball and player movement to keep up on offense despite having Bryn Forbes and Doug McDermott on the court at the same time. Losing the non-Jokic minutes while coughing up the ball a lot seemed like a sign of impending doom for San Antonio, but as the quarter went on, the offense slowly found its way while the defense remained good enough to keep a stagnant Denver attack in check, for the most part. With Johnson leading the way, the Spurs attacked the rim more often and some Derrick White hustle plays served to energize the team. The Silver and Black were lucky that the Nuggets struggled, but they also did enough to deserve to be close at the break.

For a couple of minutes to start the second half, it seemed like San Antonio had a real chance to upset the lackadaisical home team. Murray had a couple of back-to-back steals that resulted in five points on the break while no one other than Jokic had it going for Denver. Unfortunately, Michael Malone called a timeout and the Nuggets regrouped. Jokic sent Poeltl to the bench with foul trouble again, and the Nuggets feasted as first Eubanks and then Thaddeus Young tried to fill the void inside. Meanwhile, the Spurs didn’t get many opportunities to run, and the individual forays to the rim were not yielding the results they did earlier. If it wasn’t for Jokic’s supporting cast having an off night, the deficit would have been bigger after a poor third frame.

There was a predictable run to start the fourth, with Jokic resting and the Nuggets’ atrocious second unit coming back to earth after a decent first half. Poeltl was on the court to shore up the defense and attack the rim on the other end, which gave San Antonio the edge. The lead that at one point was at 11 disappeared for Denver, but no one who’s watched them play would have been too worried. Jokic checked back in and took over, as he typically does, and suddenly Denver was in the driver’s seat again in a matter of minutes. If a couple of threes had fallen for the Nuggets, they could have closed it out earlier, but they had to suffer until the end, because these Spurs don’t give up. Unfortunately, this time a valiant effort wasn’t enough to get San Antonio the win.

Game notes

  • The Spurs went 6-for-24 from beyond the arc and shot only 14 free throws. The only way they can outscore opponents on nights like Friday’s is if they take care of the ball and force turnovers to have an advantage in transition points. Against the Nuggets, that wasn’t the case, as Denver actually prevented fastbreak points despite turning the ball over a lot (a decent amount were errant out-of-bounds passes) and took advantage of the Spurs’ many mistakes to get easy buckets.
  • Devin Vassell had an underwhelming follow up to his fantastic opening night, as he only logged six points on seven shots. To be fair to him, the entire bench played poorly, actually getting outscored by a very weak Denver second unit. It’s the reason why Pop, who talked about how no one was going to play big minutes this season, had to give Keldon Johnson, Dejounte Murray and Derrick White 35+ minutes despite having a SEGABABA coming up.
  • Do the Spurs have a viable backup center? Despite carrying more bigs than in recent years, things don’t normally go well when Jakob Poeltl rests. Drew Eubanks got into foul trouble in this one, and Thaddues Young looked completely lost once again. It’s too early to completely rework the rotation, but if things don’t improve, Jock Landale might deserve a shot. Pop has seemed willing to experiment with the backup point guard minutes, giving some to Bryn Forbes and some to Tre Jones, so he might be open to doing the same at center sooner than expected.

Play of the game

Keldon Johnson yelling “And-1!” as loudly as possible is a delight on its own, but what makes this play is the amount of contact he takes while still remaining in control.

Sometimes players have to have the will to get a bucket no matter what, and Keldon has that quality.

SVP awards

This season we are picking the three best performers of the night and giving them points that go towards a season leaderboard. First place gets three points, second gets two, and third gets one.

3rd place (1 point): Jakob Poeltl | 15 points on eight shots, eight rebounds

The third place could have gone to Dejounte Murray, who started slow but had great stretches, but Jakob gets it because this game showed how important he is. Poeltl needs to do a better job of avoiding foul trouble, in part because the Spurs are a much worse team without him. No one can replace what he brings to the table as a defender and offensive rebounder. So even though the MVP thoroughly outplayed him, Jak gets a point because of how much he was missed while he wasn’t on the court.

2nd place (2 points): Derrick White | 16 points, two rebounds, eight assists, two steals, two blocks

White did a little big of everything. He didn’t shoot particularly well from the floor (5-for-13), but because he hit some threes and went to the line, he had an efficient scoring night. His passing was on point as well, and he was fantastic on defense. On top of the blocks and steals, he drew two charges and had a couple of great contests at the rim. It’s good to see that his struggles in the preseason are in the past.

1st place (3 points): Keldon Johnson | 27 points, four rebounds, two assists, three steals

Johnson led the team in scoring by not only driving to the rim like he’s done for a while, but also hitting some mid-range jumpers. He’s evolving as a self-creator game by game and could end up being the reliable offensive threat the Spurs desperately need. On paper, the Nuggets had an advantage at forward, with Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. going against Johnson and McDermott, but Keldon single-handedly flipped the script. It wasn’t enough, but he did his best to give the Spurs a chance to win.

Season leaderboad

1st: Four-way tie between Jakob Poeltl, Derrick White, Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson - 3 points

2nd: N/A

3rd: N/A

Next game: Vs. Bucks on Saturday

After traveling to Denver to play against one of the best teams in the West and reigning MVP, the Spurs will fly back to San Antonio to host the defending champions. Hopefully they’ll have the energy to keep the game close.