Behind three players with 20+ points and some hot shooting against a Denver defense that doesn’t scare anyone, the San Antonio Spurs beat the Nuggets 127-99 at the Pepsi Center. Nikola Jokic had a double-double with a team-leading 19 points to go with 11 rebounds and 5 assists, and Danilo Gallinari poured in 15, but there just wasn’t enough offense to keep up and too few stops for Denver, a familiar theme. The energy was good for Denver all night even when things weren’t going their way. Sometimes the better team just shows you up in your own house.
The game started off with trade speculation swirling, as Kenneth Faried was not on the bench or on the court prior to tipoff, though more than likely it was simply his lingering back issue. Jokic and Mudiay began the on-court action with 3 buckets for Denver, but Aldridge matched with 6 points of his own. Then Jokic threw this pass to Harris:
The Nuggets still couldn't stop anyone though and trailed 13-12 early as the two teams made 12 of their first 13 combined shots. Arthur hit a couple of buckets including a 3, and Denver made its first 10 shots but couldn't pull away. Jokic and Gallinari got to the line with some tough inside play and Denver took a 27-23 lead with 4 minutes to go. The Nuggets finally cooled off, but they kept going inside rather than shooting fadeaway threes and baskets from Nurkic and Gallinari and a reverse dunk by Barton put Denver up 33-29 after one.
The Spurs started the quarter with Ginobili swishing a 3 over Nurkic. The Bosnian Beast hit a paint hook in response, but San Antonio took a 37-35 lead on an 8-2 run against the bench. Kawhi Leonard came back a minute into the quarter while Denver's starters remained on the bench. The two teams played scrappy (if low-scoring) ball over the next four minutes but a three point play from Pau Gasol put the Spurs up 44-42. Jamal Murray's drive to the hoop showed the kind of drive Denver needed to compete in this game.
The Nuggets threw up a couple of airballs but a Harris-to-Gallo transition 3 cut the deficit to one at 48-47 with a couple of minute til halftime. A couple of blocks by Gasol on Gallinari and some nice Spurs shooting dragged the San Antonio lead out to 58-53 at the half in a well-contested half.
That dissolved after halftime. Denver gave up 10-2 run to start the third, with a block and a couple of turnovers hampering their efforts. The Nuggets kept playing hard but the finishing left something to be desired, going 13-for-43 since their early hot streak. Tony Parker just lit up Denver, hitting 10 of 11 shots to that point along with 7 assists to put the Spurs up 74-61. As San Antonio took Denver behind the woodshed, Gallinari made a hard dunk, then followed with a circus shot - and then immediately got a technical for complaining about the lack of foul call. The dunk was pretty, though:
Nothing could slow the Spurs assault, though, and the Spurs took a 15 point lead into the fourth, 90-77, despite some heroics from Will Barton.
The Spurs started the fourth quarter by hitting everything they wanted and hit 100 points with 8:30 to go in the game. Every time Denver made a couple of buckets, San Antonio would hit another three or make a nice cut for a lay-up. They brought in some bench players at 108-86 with just over 6 minutes to go to play next to Kawhi and Gasol. Denver brought its starters back to maintain its standard rotations but everyone kept playing and scrambling. In the last couple of games the both the energy and quality of play had been questioned, at least on defense, but Denver tried hard the whole game. They just didn’t have answers. The Spurs pulled all their starters with 4 minutes to go and the Nuggets pulled Alonzo Gee and Mike Miller off the deep bench to wave the white flag. In the end, a title contender mowed down an also-ran as the Spurs won 127-99.
Matchup verdict: Jokic vs. Pau. Calling Gasol / Jokic an even matchup was disrespectful to Jokic - I apologize. Jokic had anything he wanted in the early going. He had 8 of Denver's first 12 points and was going over, around and through Gasol, even backing him down with some solid lower body work. Aldridge and Dedmon fouled him in a vain attempt to slow him down as he had 11 points in the first 8 minutes of the ballgame. He snagged 8 rebounds in the first half, and came out in the third looking to pass - but none of his teammates could make a shot. He still had a double-double in three quarters of work and no one on San Antonio could really slow him down.
Something to watch: Defense did not show up. The Spurs shot 58% in the first half and 56% for the game, with 90 points through three quarters. San Antonio's smart ball movement got them layups and threes (10-for-22 from distance through three quarters). Denver fought hard, but in a make-or-miss game they missed too many while the Spurs made everything. The Nuggets really need a defensive makeover, from scheme on down.
2nd time tonight Denver has doubled the post with the strongside wing and given up a wide open kickout for 3. Antiquated defense.— Adam Mares (@Adam_Mares) January 6, 2017
Final thought: The Nuggets need better guard play. Mudiay, Harris, Murray and Nelson combined to go 6-for-23 from the floor through 3 quarters. If they'd gone 12-for-23 Denver would have had a one-possession game going into the fourth. San Antonio's guards put up 42 points on 18-for-33 in the same timeframe. Denver can't give up that kind of discrepancy and expect to win, and with Jokic shouldering a lot of the load in ball distribution the guards have got to finish. Denver’s guards cannot keep allowing opposing back-courts to score with impunity while coming up dry themselves.