The Denver Nuggets never led on Wednesday night, and trailed the San Antonio Spurs by as many as 17, but behind an early scoring barrage by Gary Harris and a monster game from Nikola Jokic (who earned his first career double-double with 23 points and 12 rebounds) the Nuggets kept the game within reach and entertaining for most of its 48 minutes.
Denver had no answer for the 3-point shooting of the Spurs and could not handle their impressive pick / screen game; the Spurs are a horrible team to draw on a back-to-back. Nevertheless, the Nuggets snagged 50 rebounds (17 offensive) to keep them in the game despite a poor shooting night from several starters, including Danilo Gallinari, who after 32 points in Tuesday's victory did not make his first field goal until the last few minutes of the third quarter.
Tony Parker opened the scoring for San Antonio. The Nuggets were working hard for rebounds early but struggled with their shots, a problem that would continue for most of the evening. They started with good energy though, especially Gary Harris. He made the first three buckets for Denver and drove to the basket for some nice makes. Hickson went 0-4 in the first 4 minutes on his way to a 2-for-10 night, as the non-Harris Nuggets attempted too many long fadeaways. Parker ruined Mudiay on screens all night, and laid in another easy bucket to make it 14-6. A nice steal by Harris led to a 3-point play by Mudiay, and then Gallo had a great sequence of drive, rebound, rebound to keep a possession alive. A kickout to Harris for 3 made it 16-14 Spurs. Barton and Jokic showed off some great chemistry with a beautiful give-and-go, but the Nuggets blew a handful of layups while the Spurs hit 3s and the Nuggets wound up trailing after one, 31-24.
Patty Mills rained some death in this game as the Nuggets kept doubling without actually solving the pick-and-roll game San Antonio was dealing. A 7-2 Spurs run started the second and the Nuggets had the chance to pack it in early, but Jameer hit a 3 to break the streak. Will Barton made a layup, then picked Patty's pocket and flushed a reverse jam to cut the lead to 7. Jokic tipped in a Jameer miss with his 3-inch vertical after a first half filled with hustle on both ends of the court. The Spurs starters came back with a slim 43-37 lead. Jokic tipped in a Barton miss to get to 12 points in the first half, a career-high - but his night only got better. Kawhi Leonard hit a ridiculous turn-around 3 as the clock ran down, then drained another for a 12 point lead. Faried jumped over Tony Parker in the paint at one point, but there was no effective defense happening on the Denver side as San Antonio shot almost 60% in the first half. Mudiay hooked up with Faried for a couple of dunks near the end of the half, but Emmanuel couldn't get a 3 off at the buzzer and the Nuggets went into the break down 7, 65-58.
Both teams started off the third quarter tentatively, though Duncan destroyed a Mudiay drive to the paint. Hickson took a pass off his back on a give-and-go as he didn't think Gallo would be giving it back to him, and the Spurs went up 11 on a Tony Parker two, 75-64. Jokic fought with Duncan for a turnover, which bounced to Harris for a sprinting dunk. Duncan stripped Jokic on the other end though to return the favor. Nikola kept fighting for rebounds and after a scary looking injury timeout for Darrell Arthur, Jokic forced his way to the line as well. Gallo took a 2 that was way off, but hit a 3 the next time down court for his first bucket with 2 minutes left in the third. Patty Mills finally missed one at the end of the quarter for the Spurs, but despite 18 and 8 by Jokic through 3 the Nuggets trailed 93-79.
Nelson had his shot blocked to start the 4th, and Mills sank another. Foye bricked a 3 and that turned into a transition and foul. The Nuggets looked to be running out of energy, throwing up a ton of long, ineffective shots. Barton and Jameer were the only Denver players who ventured near the paint as Denver managed just 2 points in the first three and a half minutes of the quarter. Faried checked back in and drove right to the bucket for a 3-point play. Foye blew a transition basket but Faried hit a hook to close the gap to 10 at 97-87 with 7 minutes to go, forcing Duncan and Leonard to return to the game. Mudiay missed a jumper, then Barton was blocked on a yet another blown transition, and Kawhi threw in a dagger 3 with three minutes left to bump the lead back to 13. Mudiay bounced a pass off Nikola's head which led to another three from San Antonio, but then Jokic hit his first trey of his career, ripping the cords. Mudiay couldn't hit anything late in the game but Denver still fought as Gallo fought for a tie-up and jumped it up against Duncan with 2 minutes to go even with the game essentially out of reach. Jokic threw in a pair of late blocks on LaMarcus Aldridge for good measure to cap his amazing evening. The Nuggets went down 109-98, but competed for all 4 quarters and never quit even though there were times it would have been easy to do so.
Game clips courtesy of @The_NGUYENNER.
1) Passing was there for most of the game, even if the shooting wasn't. Malone said before the game that he values assists "because it sets the tone." He pointed out that the Nuggets average 27 assists in wins but only 17 in losses. The quality of shots in losses is the problem. Tonight the Nuggets were let down by their shooting (38.8%) but with 25 assists on the night they were moving the ball around pretty well. With a 13:2 assist-to-turnover ratio at halftime, the Nuggets also took care of the ball. They stayed aggressive on offense, but had trouble finishing in close early and didn't have the legs to make shots late. Mudiay, Gallo, Hickson and Foye combined to go 6-for-36 from the floor, but the concepts on offense weren't awful. The Spurs are a great defensive team and yet with a better shooting night on open shots from some vets it could have been a different night. If the Nuggets get the Spurs in this situation again, hopefully they finish strong at the rim and make a few more shots from the floor.
2) Gallo couldn't find the offense against Kawhi Leonard. There's no shame in that - Kawhi won the DPOY for a reason - but without our best player scoring the ball it put more pressure on Mudiay to make something happen offensively, and he just can't do that right now. Mudiay hasn't triangulated his scoring sweetspot yet, and his jumper is out of sorts. His legs are doing something different (not to mention bad) every time he goes up, he's shooting on the way down or trying floaters while moving away from the basket instead of toward it... he's out of sorts. These are the games the Nuggets have to ride out with him, but when Gallo, Foye and Jameer combine for 16 points it's hard to survive Mudiay's 5. Gallinari will have to find a way to be Denver's best player every time out instead of on a coin flip - or the Nuggets' youth brigade will need to break out in full force. Which brings us to...
3) Jokic is no joke. He locked down his first double-double tonight with that 23 point, 12 rebound performance, but he was all over the place. He tipped passes, scrambled on the floor for loose balls and hit free throws and shots everywhere but at the rim. Nikola even started drifting out to the 3 point line in the 4th, and snagged his first trey in the process. He was gassed halfway through the third but kept playing hard, just like his coach implored them to do. The Spurs announcers were stunned as he displayed good court awareness and a nice passing game with Barton on several occasions. Jokic does not have his NBA body yet and is not in shape to play 30 minutes a night, but performances like this show that he can be a force even though he's not fully ready. His game is only in its infancy, but the 20 year old announced his presence tonight.
With Harris, Mudiay and Jokic all getting productive court time, the future is now. All three are making young mistakes, but showing upside promise as well. Today was Nikola's turn to shine. Someday soon they'll all shine together, and then the wins will start rolling in. Nurkic should return in December and Lauvergne might be back this weekend. Denver's youth movement is impressive while remaining watchable. That's not an easy feat.