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Spurs vs. Nuggets: No Duncan, no problem?... (8:30pm MDT)

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Our new-look Nuggets could very well be playing the San Antonio Spurs in the 2011 playoffs. But thanks to Tim Duncan's sprained ankle, we won't get the opportunity to see how these two teams will match up.

In three previous meetings against the Spurs this season, the Nuggets have zero wins to show for themselves.

The first matchup took place in Denver on December 16th and ended with the most controversial call of the entire NBA season when Carmelo Anthony took the ball to the rack for the game-winner and the Spurs' Manu Ginobili flopped himself into a San Antonio road victory. That game also featured the best non-Blake Griffin dunk of the season when J.R. Smith did this...

The second meeting between these two teams took place just six nights later at San Antonio, and with revenge on their minds the Nuggets - without Anthony - played hard until the Spurs out-scored them 29-14 in the fourth quarter. In that game, Smith had yet another remarkable play, this time doing this...

The third meeting - on January 16th - was devoid of a good effort and of any highlights to speak of, as the Nuggets got their collective asses kicked 110-97. In that game, the Nuggets were out-scored by the suddenly high-scoring Spurs by 16 points in the second quarter and then spent the entire second half trading baskets en route to the loss.

So you can imagine this and many Nuggets fans excitement when we saw the Spurs on the home schedule one more time before season's end. Not only would the new-look Nuggets have an opportunity to do what the Melo-led Nuggets couldn't do this season, but the Wednesday night matchup between the NBA-leading Spurs and the 10-4 Nuggets was supposed to be a playoff preview. After all, it's still possible (but unlikely) that the Nuggets could drop to eighth in the Western Conference and face the Spurs in the first round or (as is more likely) cling on to that fifth seed, beat the Oklahoma City Thunder, and face the Spurs in the second round.

But a playoff preview we will not get.

On Monday night during an impressive home win over the Golden State Warriors, the Spurs' superstar / leader / MVP / greatest "power forward" of all time Tim Duncan severely sprained his ankle early in the contest and is out "indefinitely." Meaning whatever lineup Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich trots out on Wednesday night won't be the same as the lineup the Nuggets will face should these two Western Conference perennial powers meet up in the postseason. And with a cushy seven-game lead over the second-seeded Los Angeles Lakers, there will be no rush to bring Duncan back.

While the Nuggets need every win they can get and (in theory) a Duncan-less Spurs team makes the Nuggets an overwhelming home favorite, I'm disappointed in this turn of events. For starters, this new-look Nuggets team needs as many playoff-caliber tests as possible and playing pushovers like the Raptors, Wizards and Kings can lead to a false sense of security. With the exception of a home date against the Thunder on April 5th, the Nuggets have no remaining home tests left now.

And secondly, even though I've seen Duncan play ample times throughout his NBA career, I know that these opportunities to watch him in person are dwindling down to a few remaining games. Many fans think that Duncan is "boring," but I think he's fascinating to watch.

In an unofficial "poll" that I've conducted over the years, every time I meet an NBA head coach, team executive, broadcaster or former player, I ask them a very simple question: "If you can build a franchise around any one active NBA player and can have the guy in Year One of his career, who would you take? Kobe? Shaq? LeBron? Garnett? Durant? Wade?"

And to a man, they all inevitably reply: "Tim Duncan."

In a depressing way, the Nuggets are somewhat linked to Duncan's career. Going back to the 1996-97 season, the Nuggets tried desperately to lose as many games as possible in hopes of landing Duncan in the draft. And lose they did. To wrap up that forgettable season, the Nuggets put together losing streaks of six and 10 games out of their final 18 games. In fact, I remember rooting for the Spurs to beat the Nuggets that season just so we could get a few extra ping pong balls during the draft lottery!

But like everything the Nuggets and Spurs had done before or since, the Spurs did things a little better than Denver, finishing with just 20 wins to the Nuggets 21. That one win difference meant that the Spurs had a marginally better chance of landing the draft's first pick and thanks to the draft lottery, the Spurs landed Duncan with the first overall pick while the Nuggets settled for Tony "El Busto" Battie with their fifth overall selection.

As great of a coach as Gregg Popovich has been with Duncan on his team, Pop's performance in 1996-97 was probably the greatest of his career. It's no secret that the Spurs superstar center at the time - David Robinson - could have returned before season's end from a broken foot and bad back. But Popovich astutely (or, perhaps, unfairly) held Robinson back in hopes of losing just enough games to get that first pick. Not only hasn't Popovich had a losing season since, but he hasn't coached a team to less than 50 wins in 14 seasons other than the lockout shortened 1998-99 season when the Spurs "only" won 74% of their games. And Pop knows exactly who deserves the credit for this incredible run of successful seasons, saying to ESPN's J.A. Adande recently...

"I've said it pretty often over the years: As far as head coaches go, I have the easiest job in the league, because of [Duncan]," Popovich said. "I mentioned how coachable he is and how he accepts what we do. His ability to welcome other people into the program, to keep the standard where it's at, to set the example, and to do it, basically in an unobtrusive way. It's not heavy-handed ... most of the time you don't even know he's around, but he's still there, if that makes any sense. And that's what he's meant for us. He's like the silent leader and the rock of the program. So I always have that to depend on, and he always seems to have my back."

So on Wednesday night, does no Duncan mean no problem for Denver? It better. And while I'm disappointed that the Nuggets won't get the playoff test we were hoping for nor will we see the great Duncan in person one more time, for now I'll gladly take a Nuggets victory over the Spurs and hope that we'll see Duncan again should the Nuggets advance in the 2011 playoffs.

SCOUTING THE SPURS...

Spurs Non-Stiffs

-Tony Parker: If only Tiger Woods could play his sport post-divorce as well as Parker is. Seemingly able to shake off all the off-the-court distractions that have engulfed this Frenchman, Parker - who's not even 29 years old yet! - is having one of his best seasons and is shooting a career-high 52.2% from the field.

-Manu Ginobili: He's a flopper and a pain in the ass for the opposition, but other than Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade I want Ginobili starting on my team at shooting guard in a big game.

-DeJuan Blair: The "man who should have been a Nugget" has improved on his solid rookie season and is producing even better as an NBA sophomore.

Spurs Stiffs

-Tiago Splitter: In Duncan's absence, Splitter has the opportunity to prove to the NBA that he wasn't merely all hype entering the season. Because if his performance to date is any indication, the much sought after Splitter might just be a marginal NBA player.

FINAL THOUGHT

A dysfunctional and distracted Nuggets team almost beat the Spurs twice this season. A cohesive and coherent Nuggets team should be able to get the job done against the Duncan-less Spurs.

Opposition's Take: Pounding the Rock