Through the first two games of the season, the San Antonio Spurs have shown both extremes of what they can be on offense. In their season opener, they played an extremely exciting brand of basketball, and nearly everyone was red hot in an entertaining barn burner against the shorthanded Orlando Magic. Then, in their second game, in the Mile High City — home of the Denver Nuggets, reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, and the biggest homecourt advantage in the NBA: altitude — the offense sputtered. There wasn’t much ball movement, they coughed it up 20 times, and they got a grand total of 18 points from the bench unit.
But as poor as they played on that end at times, it was also no coincidence that it was still a tight game right down to the final minute of a 102-96 loss. Not to play the moral victory card here, but one thing this game proved is the Spurs have the defense to keep themselves afloat when their offense isn’t clicking: something they haven’t had in the recent past and will be a must if they want to sniff the postseason again.
Jokic had an MVP-esque night with 32 points, 16 rebounds and 7 assists, but the game plan going into this one was likely to accept that he’d get his share, so make sure no one else did. While the Spurs defense was far from perfect, especially in the first half, no one else for the Nuggets scored more than Monte Morris’ 13 points, so consider that mission accomplished. They also forced the Nuggets into 21 turnovers (although many were of the dead ball variety, preventing fast breaks) and only gave up 8 free throws.
Admittedly, this was on a night when the refs were pretty much letting them play, to the consternation of both teams at times considering it was a pretty physical affair, but that brings up another point. These Spurs weren’t jarred by the physicality of the game as past iterations would have been. They didn’t spend their time barking at the refs or looking for calls; they just accepted it and kept playing bully ball right back on both ends of the court, led by their very own bulldozer, Keldon Wilder Johnson. (Seriously, that’s his actual middle name. Look it up.)
If there’s another reason besides the defense that they hung around against a team that should be a contender in the Western Conference this year, it was the aptly named Big Body. He started out hot and remained that way throughout, scoring a not-quite-career-high 27 points on 12-18 shooting, along with 4 rebounds and 3 steals. Whether it was in the midrange of just using his big frame to force his way to the rim, Johnson had his way with the Nuggets defense, even in a game when the refs weren’t blowing their whistles.
Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl also had solid scoring nights with a combined 46 points on 19-40 shooting, but Johnson is the one who set the mood early and late in the game. Without a go-to scorer, someone will need to step up on any given night when the team offense is struggling, and tonight it was him. He won’t always score like this, and on other nights it will be other players, but it was good to see someone take the reigns for the first test of the season. Again, this was no moral victory, but positive things were still learned that can be used going forward throughout the rest of the season.
- Thaddeus Young finally made his regular season debut for the Spurs, and he looked ... not good. After Poeltl got into early foul trouble, and Pop couldn’t just play Eubanks for an entire quarter-and-a-half, he went with Young as the third big, and it wasn’t pretty. Jokic had been struggling up to that point but found his game the instant Young was put on him, hitting a wide open three on one possession and driving right past him on the next. Not that this was a fair matchup to set the standard for Young, but he also had trouble with JaMychal Green. (Then again, the Spurs in general always do.) If anything, this has simply proven that the old school power forward is not built to play small ball center, and that’s a problem considering he doesn’t fit well on the court with any of the Spurs centers.
- After a Nuggets 14-4 run midway through the fourth quarter, the Spurs seemed about done, but Pop kept the starters in to see what they would do, and to their credit they responded. In fact, things could have gone differently had the refs not missed a blatant out-of-bounds call late that the Spurs couldn’t challenge because they were out of timeouts, resulting in a four-point swing. And honestly, I’m not even going to hate on the refs for that one. What I will say is that instead of just pointing the other way, Murray (who clearly never touched the ball) could have been more emphatic that the ball went off Morris’ thigh, not him. It worked for the Nuggets a possession earlier, when the ball clearly went out off Poeltl’s foot, but after enough yelling from Jokic, the refs convened and rightfully overturned the call, so who knows? Maybe it would have worked out for the Spurs too.
- Welcome to being the reigning MVP, Joker. Not only did he get away with his fair share of push-offs and iffy screens that, let’s say, Poeltl never would, but on one possession early in the second half when he felt he had been fouled, he spent his the entire defensive possession barking at the refs, and even kept going after the next whistle with an emphatic arm-slapping gesture. It was stuff only an MVP could get away with without being T-ed up. (DeMar DeRozan certainly would have gotten one.)
- But in all seriousness, besides Jokic’s aforementioned amazing night stat-wise, before the game the Spurs broadcast showed a stat from last season that the Nuggets were nearly 17 points worse without him on the floor. That played out tonight as he was a +14 in plus/minus, and it was obvious that it wasn’t just a one-off. The Spurs did most of their damage against a relatively weak Nuggets bench, and the Nuggets were day and night with Jokic verus without. Sometimes what a player does on the court isn’t the only indicator of how good he is, but also what his team does without him. For Jokic, it’s one of his biggest arguments for being the league MVP.