This matchup had a bit of a different complexion than the previous tussle between these two teams, with Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan staying in San Antonio for an extra rest day but in the end the result was the same as the Denver Nuggets went down in ignominious fashion to the San Antonio Spurs 91-80. Kawhi Leonard carried the lion's share of the offensive burden for the Spurs with 25 points, and the Nuggets had no one who could match that effort. Danilo Gallinari put up a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds, but it took him 15 shots to do it. Emmanuel Mudiay had another tragic night from the field, going 3-for-14 with only 3 assists - although to be fair he watched at least that many get wasted as the Nuggets botched shots at the rim all night long. A 12-0 run by San Antonio to end the first half wasted a good defensive effort over the first 22 minutes of the game by the home team, and another run in third put the game out of reach.
The good defensive start was encouraging. Boban Marjanović is not exactly the same presence as Tim Duncan, and the Nuggets came out aggressively. Once again the Nuggets couldn't compete for even three entire quarters however, continuing their disturbing precedent of being the weaker team at altitude and letting the pace and pressure be dictated by the visitors. The Spurs led 70-59 after 3 and were up by as many as 20 early in the fourth, taking a tight game at halftime and turning it into a laugher. Denver was out-rebounded (42 to 37) and got very few contributions from the frontcourt players. JJ Hickson had 9 points but just one lonely rebound, while Darrell Arthur hit one bucket and Jokic played just 12 minutes due to foul trouble. Malone was likely saving him at the end rather than using his minutes in the 4th in an obviously losing effort with another game tomorrow, but Denver's wings and backcourt were not capable of shouldering the scoring and defensive burden alone. Turnovers (18) cropped up whenever the Nuggets looked like they might put something together, and when an opportunity was there to score it was somehow botched.
This right here encapsulated Denver's evening:
Do something right, then promptly undo it and allow easy points. Rinse, repeat. It was not a good show for the fans who braved the cold to come see the game.
1) It's too easy to get the Nuggets off their game. The Spurs started off out of rhythm, but found their stride and made adjustments. The Nuggets don't seem to have another gear. Even when guys got hot off the bench in the first half it never seemed like it was going to blossom across the team. It was just one or two players getting hot for a minute, and when they cooled off the Nuggets returned to the muck and the mire. Chris Fleming at halftime talked about coming out with the right energy in the first 5 minutes, but the Nuggets starters looked sluggish and out of sorts. They fought back but right about the time they'd closed the gap the Spurs went on another run and Denver's offense devolved into turnovers and ineffective chucking. As Hastings pointed out, Denver shot 6-for -19 in the first and 5-of-18 in the 3rd - the Starters simply cannot shoot. Some of that is Mudiay, but this is the first game where I thought we looked like the Shaw Nuggets: not enough fight, terrible offensive plan and a refusal to slow the opposition once they find their groove. The Nuggets were up by 11 in the first but they lost their shooting touch and then their spirit. If Denver doesn't understand Michael Malone's offense, that's a problem. If this IS Malone's offense, that's a bigger problem. Either way, Malone needs to come up with a plan B when plan A isn't working, and the Nuggets need to learn how to fight through adversity. Which leads to...
2) The Nuggets need to finish possessions and trust each other. The Nuggets can't shoot but also can't finish at the rim, blowing the easy shots they need to stay in games. As reported by Blake Olson, Malone told the team in a fourth quarter timeout: "You can fold or quit right now or you can fight back. I know what I would do but I can't do it for you." The Nuggets didn't entirely fold, but didn't have a lot of fight left either.Whether the Nuggets are a soft team or just a young team is yet to be determined, but they definitely fold like a lawn chair whenever another team puts pressure on them on either end of the court. They overhelp defensively, leading to wide open threes - which then makes them reluctant to come on help defense. That leads to plays like Gallinari walking out of the lane away from the ball and giving up the easy layup on Mudiay's man because he's afraid to make a decision. On offense, once the easy, assisted shots aren't falling, Denver somehow seems to think harder shots are the answer as everyone jacks up long-distance, contested shots that lead to easy transition buckets for the other team. Whether because of injuries or inexperience, the Nuggets cannot stick with what is working. Passes that are vibrant and fluid on one possession bog down on the very next one into a morass of inept flailing. Stop flailing. Denver isn't good enough offensively to play hero ball, and even short-handed the bench is having to make up too much of the scoring deficiency caused by the starters' offensive shyness or ineptitude. The Nuggets need to make it easier on themselves, and 20 foot jumpshots are not the way to do it.
3) We miss our big men. The Spurs destroyed Denver on the boards without even trying for most of the game, with the Nuggets making up some of the rebounding edge on late misses after the game was out of reach. Kenneth Faried's momentum-turning plays are missing, Jusuf Nurkic's physicality is woefully needed, and Joffrey Lauvergne's passion and intensity are absent from most of the players who take the floor for the Nuggets. Denver needs to find its passion for basketball again, because these lifeless displays of slow-paced, ineffective and boring basketball don't provide viewing entertainment and aren't coming anywhere near winning games.
We'll see if the Nuggets have anything more interesting left in the tank against the Mavericks tomorrow, but someone should probably tell them that two and a half quarters of effort won't cut it.