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Recap: Nuggets lose hard-fought game to Spurs

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On another Nikola Jokic career night, the Nuggets couldn’t quite get past the Spurs.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The Denver Nuggets and the San Antonio Spurs went into tonight’s game with M.A.S.H. units on both sides, but the Spurs eventually beat Denver 118-104. Nikola Jokic put up a career high 35 points to go with 12 rebounds, four assists, and two blocks, but it wasn’t enough to get past the Spurs machine.

Both the Nuggets and the Spurs came into the game without starters. The Nuggets were without Danilo Gallinari, Gary Harris, Wilson Chandler, and Darrell Arthur, while the Spurs were without Tony Parker and Pau Gasol, who left with a finger injury before tipoff. It occurred during the pregame, and it turns out it’s a broken finger. Get well soon Pau. Juancho Hernangomez started in place of the Italian small forward, while Dejounte Murray made a surprise appearance in the lineup for Gregg Popovich’s team.

Without so many key contributors, the Nuggets needed a player to step up from the beginning, Jokic started by adding a quick six points in a variety of ways. The offense was working well for Denver early in a slower paced game, and every member of the starting lineup was making contributions. Dejounte Murray and David Lee scored the first six points for San Antonio, and each basket showed that Jokic has clearly slowed down defensively. He needs to continue to put in effort on that end.

At the 3:39 mark in the first quarter, Jusuf Nurkic subbed in for Kenneth Faried, and the Nuggets went to a little Balkan Buddy Ball for a stretch. The only points for either team occurred after an egregious turnover by Jameer Nelson, when Manu Ginobili hit a floater in the pick and roll. After a timeout, the two centers shared the floor for an additional two minutes, in which time Nelson hit two jumpers and Nurkic dunked off of a Jamal Murray dish. Against a Spurs team playing LaMarcus Aldridge and Dewayne Dedmon at the time, that time certainly is inconclusive. The Nuggets finished the first quarter down 28-23.

Jamal Murray opened up the scoring in the second quarter with a three off of great action off-ball. He also hit a nice drive in semi-transition and drawing a foul on a three pointer, showing the scoring instincts everyone is drooling over. The Nuggets worked the game back to a 31-30 lead in the first three minutes of the quarter behind Murray and some great, great work from Juancho and Faried defensively. Popovich reinserted many of the Spurs starters at that point, and they earned the lead back. Malone countered with his starting group, and the two teams hung around each other for awhile. Jokic continued to pour in points at the free throw line and with a nice one-handed catch-and-release layup.

Then, Nuggets fans held their collective breath as Jokic drove into the lane and went down hard after an And-1. He got up and made the free throw, and for some reason, Gregg Popovich was tired of sitting through this game, so he went and got himself ejected. Lol. The pace of the game opened up greatly at this point, as both teams were getting up and down the floor while playing smaller. The Nuggets were able to keep things close and only trailed 59-58 going into halftime.

The Spurs scored six straight points to start the second half. Kenneth Faried looked very lost defensively on both possessions then had the ball stolen for a fast break dunk, prompting a quick timeout from Malone. That didn’t stop the bleeding though, as Denver couldn’t get organized on either end of the floor, leading to a 13-0 scoring run. Denver was able to stop the bleeding a little bit, but the Spurs grew the lead to double digits. One player who performed well continuously was Dejounte Murray, who continued to abuse Mudiay and Nelson defensively. He had a career high in points tonight. Mike Miller entered the game with a number of reserves, making the ending score irrelevant. He came in and made an IMMEDIATE impact on the game, directly the Nuggets offensively, defensively, and hitting a three in transition to cut the Spurs lead to seven.

The pace slowed down after that, and the Spurs out-executed the Nuggets for the majority of the quarter. Nurkic completed a nice And-1, though struggled to hit the majority of his free throws. Jamal Murray had a nice dunk as well, but the Spurs kept their lead at double digits, 92-81, to end the third quarter.

The fourth quarter opened up with some shoddy defense and decision making by Denver. The only points came on a Hernangomez three pointer he banked off the glass, while the Spurs continued to out-execute Denver on the other end.

At this point, Nikola Jokic started to take over the ball game a bit. With multiple threes, rebounds, and a blocked shot, he helped the Nuggets cut the lead to single digits while earning ANOTHER career high in points. The Spurs were just too much on the other end though. As hardworking as Juancho is, and as much effort as Barton puts in, Kawhi Leonard was Kawhi Leonard tonight, carrying the Spurs’ late game offense. There was nothing anyone on Denver could do to completely stop him, and the Nuggets eventually lost this one 118-104.

Three Takeaways

Juancho Hernangomez and Jamal Murray need to be permanent fixtures in the rotation. Murray had 13 points and did a lot of nice things offensively tonight. He still has work to do defensively, and he was inefficient, but if that’s the reason Jameer Nelson is playing more than him right now, then things need to change quickly. More importantly though, I’ve been calling for Juancho Hernangomez to see more time, and he certainly earned it tonight. He was everywhere on the court, playing defense against Kawhi Leonard, cutting, spacing the floor, rebounding, playing offense against Kawhi Leonard. He absolutely deserves a larger opportunity to grow his game offensively.

Could Balkan Buddy Ball make a return in the future? The Nuggets, more likely due to injury than anything, decided to play Jokic and Nurkic together for a stretch at the end of the first quarter. The findings were inconclusive as to whether the pairing could work in the future, but it’s clear that Malone hasn’t completely outlawed the two playing together in spurts. If given the right matchup, I have confidence that the two are capable of being a positive combo. The Spurs are a great team to try it against as well. We will see what the future brings.

Nikola Jokic is an alpha dog. He scored a career high in points tonight, and while he struggled defensively and rebounding wise for much of the game, it simply didn’t matter. Jokic is a building block the Nuggets can see as their “Plan A” player for the next decade. What matters is putting together a group around him that will help clear up some of the defensive struggles. This means possibly changing everything 1 through 4, but good thing the Nuggets know who the 5 will be.