The San Antonio Spurs were looking towards the playoffs tonight. With nothing but pride to play for the Spurs kept many of their regular rotation players out of the game against the Denver Nuggets while Denver looked towards next season and elected to experiment with their lineups to see how different pairings of their young talent worked. It was the Nuggets strategy that won out as they got big performances from Emmanuel Mudiay and Jusuf Nurkic as well as some incredibly timely defensive play from Garry Harris to secure a 102-98 win.
The game opened with a surprise announcement that Nikola Jokic AND Nurkic would get the start. meanwhile the Spurs chose to sit six players. The big man pairing got plenty of shots off early but struggled to find success. Their defense was very active to begin the game though, and Denver held the Spurs to just one made field goal in the first four minutes. It seemed that only David West and Mudiay were having any success on offense. As the quarter drew to a close the benches checked in and the pace quickened but it mostly just resulted in turnovers. The Spurs closed the quarter strong behind Boban Marjanovic but the Nuggets held a 24-18 lead.
The second quarter opened in the same fashion most of the first quarter had proceeded, bad shooting led to little scoring. Will Barton was carrying Denver while Kevin Martin carried San Antonio. The Spurs eventually found their rhythm on offense and used a 13-0 run just before the halfway point of the quarter to gain the lead. However, the back court combo of Mudiay and Will Barton responded to make it an even game down the stretch of the first half. When the starters returned Tim Duncan went to work on Nurkic and looked like the Duncan of 2006, not 2016. The Bosnian Beast would fight back and the half closed with a crazy Barton layup and the Spurs leading a very tight game 53-51.
Duncan picked up where he left off to open the third quarter and scored the Spurs first four points of the second half, but the Nuggets responded behind strong play from Jakarr Sampson and took the lead with just over eight minutes left in the quarter. Denver rode the momentum and pushed the lead to six points. San Antonio began to struggle mightily on offense as it looked like fatigue began to play a role in the game for them. The Spurs started to get sloppy with the basketball and Denver stretched the lead to double figures on a Sampson break away windmill slam. Unfortunately, Martin led a scoring burst from San Antonio at the end of the third though and the Nuggets lead was just four.
Via Michael Gallagher of NBC Sports
The Spurs kept pace with the Nuggets bench as the fourth quarter opened and Duncan was once again carrying the load offensively. Denver's bench went cold and the San Antonio took the lead back just before the eight minute mark. The Nuggets responded by feeding Nurkic to keep the game close and a Mudiay three pointer with five minutes remaining got the lead back for Denver. As was the nature of this game, the lead kept swinging back and forth and Duncan responded and pushed San Antonio ahead by four with under four minutes remaining. The teams went kept trading baskets down the wire and San Antonio took a two point lead on a pair of Martin free throws with a minute to go. The Nuggets came back and Harris made a huge play on defense to get a steal and draw a foul to get the lead back from the free throw line. With seventeen seconds lef the Spurs had a shot to tie but Harris AGAIN made a huge defensive play, got the steal and iced the game away with a break away jam, Nuggets win 102-98.
Box score via ESPN.com
Best match up: Jusuf Nurkic vs Tim Duncan
Duncan surprisingly got the start while many other Spurs rested and he certainly looked as though he didn't require any additional time off. Denver seemed content to let Duncan shoot mid range jumpers and he was equally as content to knock them down. Nurkic struggled at times to defend and box out the crafty and fundamentally sound veteran as the Big Fundamental had a throw back night on offense. The Bosnian Beast did do damage of his own however. Even the GOAT power forward struggles to contain the sheer size of Nurkic and Juka had a career night scoring. He ended up just one rebound shy of a 20-10 night.
Main thing I noticed: Mudiay is playing with a lot more confidence
Mudiay had one of his best nights scoring the ball. He was hitting three pointers and getting into the lane and finishing at the rim. It was one of his most efficient performances of the season and hopefully was a flash of what is to come. Now that we're almost to the end of the season I think you can say the Mudiay's season was a mildly disappointing success. He didn't break out and dominate on his way to Rookie of the Year, but performances like tonight show how much growth he's had since the beginning of the season and the potential he has.
Closing thought: I might be wrong about the Nurkic/Jokic pairing
I haven't been an advocate of playing Jokic and Nurkic together but they looked pretty good tonight. My argument has been that Jokic or Nurkic lack the lateral quickness to defend more agile power forwards, especially ones that can stretch the floor. However when in a situation like tonight where the opponent is starting two slower, aging veterans at the four and five the pairing can be quite dangerous. I don't think its a coincidence the team played a much better game defensively when they paired those two, nor is it a coincidence they won the rebounding battle. It's good to see the coach Malone experimenting to close out the season because if he can find a way to make these two work on the court together it will be very special.