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Nuggets throttle Spurs in miniseries rematch

The shorthanded visitors flipped the script on San Antonio two days after being overmatched.

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

As the Spurs’ rematch against the Denver Nuggets curdled into a foregone conclusion at some point in the third quarter, the rest of the night began to write itself. The San Antonio bench cleared, fans took to the exits, and any media member headed down to Gregg Popovich’s postgame presser might have guessed not only the tone but the beats: an unimpressed Pop would appear and, in a short, prepared statement, respectfully compliment his opponents, do the opposite for his own team, and leave without taking questions.

The Spurs coach obliged shortly after:

“Denver set a good example of how you react after a loss, and we did the opposite,” said Pop. “We showed how you do not want to react after a win. So, they handled the loss well. We didn’t handle the win very well at all.”

It’s not that the Spurs are becoming entirely predictable 25 games into the season. An offense that struggled in the halfcourt coming out of the gate had posted a 5th best rating through the 6-game stretch heading into Saturday, boasting better three-point shooting numbers and a more aggressive Derrick White. On the flip side, the defensive intensity has slipped; turnovers aren’t being generated at the same volume, and San Antonio’s rating in their own end has ranked 24th since November 10th. Every three or four games Thaddeus Young supplants Drew Eubanks in the backup center rotation. Injuries have allowed them to play their preferred starting lineup only 10 times, which included Saturday thanks to the return of Keldon Johnson.

But despite those ebbs and flows, games like Saturday, against a Denver team missing Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton no less, feel like reminders of this team’s narrow margin for success. While the Spurs did well in getting to the free throw line (their 29 total FTAs are their 2nd highest of the season), the Nuggets contained the pick and roll and limited clean looks around the basket. Dejounte Murray racked up 4 first-half turnovers trying to fit passes into gaps that didn’t exist, and Mike Malone saw much better defensive rebounding from his group after giving up 20 offensive boards to San Antonio on Thursday (the 14 allowed on Saturday looks worse than it was, with most of those happening in the game’s extended garbage time).

One glance at the box score reveals where Denver really killed San Antonio: beyond the arc. Beginning in the 2nd quarter when reserves Bones Hyland and Markus Howard — pushed into meaningful minutes thanks to the Nuggets’ banged up roster — bombed away against the Spurs’ second unit. By halftime, the Nuggets had netted 13 triples, with that pair accounting for 6; Denver finished 20 of 43 from deep on the night.

While losing at the three-point line is to be expected with this group, the Spurs have also looked more vulnerable against bigger opponents this season, and a more revitalized Denver squad took advantage of mismatches in the frontcourt frequently. Aaron Gordon continued his aggressiveness from Thursday and readily attacked defenders like Johnson in the post, while Jokic (35 points, 17 rebounds, 8 assists in just 34 minutes) was the kind of handful MVPs often are.

These in-season miniseries are revealing for both teams, and it’s intriguing to not only see how the losing side responds the next game but also the added level of familiarity. Malone was his classic self during pregame availability, a willing quote machine happy to expound on whatever topic was brought up. “Is there a number higher than one?” he replied to a question about his team prioritizing defensive rebounding. He also touched on the topic of Gregg Popovich, in what an organization like Denver would like to emulate in San Antonio (namely, stability and multi-decade excellence) and in Pop’s influence on Malone and the wider coaching community. Malone referenced “Pop-isms” like “point-five mentality” and “good to great”, as well as the concept of the beautiful game as terms in the lexicon that coaches often preach to their players.

So early in the year, games like this still serve as calibrations for fans. We’re not sure what exactly to take away with each 48-minute sample size — focus, effort and health wane, after all — but we can feel the air of predictability beginning to fill in certain gaps of our addled minds, for better or worse.

Other notes and quotes

  • The 44 points surrendered by San Antonio in the 2nd quarter mark a new worst for the Spurs this season, passing the 43 they allowed to Indiana in a blowout loss earlier this year.
  • Nikola Jokic earned himself a technical in the third quarter for apparently hanging on the rim too long, his second technical foul of the night. Jokic appeared beside himself, presumably because he was under the same impression as most of us were about what a second tech would mean. Instead, he stayed in the game and I was left wondering what distinction exists in the rule book — not that I thought what Jokic did merited an ejection in the least.
    Anyway, for anyone curious, the NBA rule book draws a line between “unsportsmanlike technical fouls”, like the one Jokic first received for theatrically protesting a non-call in the backcourt, and “non-unsportsmanlike technical fouls”, where Jokic’s second infraction would fall.

“A technical foul called for (1) delay of game, (2) coaches box violations, (3) defensive 3-seconds, (4) having a team total of less or more than five players when the ball becomes alive, (5) a player hanging on the basket ring or backboard, (6) participation in the game when not on team’s active list, or (7) shattering the backboard or making the rim unplayable during the game (Comments On the Rules—G) is not considered an act of unsportsmanlike conduct.”

  • “I initially thought it was really bad when I first did it. Obviously when I got back here, it kind of calmed down. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. Luckily, I had my ankles taped and a few other things went my way. I’m just blessed and glad I’m able to come back and play with my team.” — Keldon Johnson after returning from ankle injury
  • Johnson’s three-point shooting remains a happy storyline. After shooting 33% last season, he’s up to over 43% in 2020-21, taking advantage of the open looks teams continue to allow him.