The Denver Nuggets not only had to play the San Antonio Spurs in San Antonio on the second night of a back to back, but they also faced a Spurs team that had their star player back in Kawhi Leonard. Leonard had previously missed the last three games for the Spurs with a shoulder injury, and had also missed the majority of the season with a calf injury. He had a big night in his return and also got some help from Davis Bertans and LaMarcus Aldridge as the Spurs wore the Nuggets down throughout the game. Despite Nikola Jokic’s big night, San Antonio gets a wire to wire win.
San Antonio opened by working through their bigs and also got a couple of quick buckets from Danny Green who was also returning from injury. Aldridge got hot quick and Bertans knocked down a trio of threes which put the Nuggets behind by eleven when they started going to their bench. Gary Harris and Jokic were doing pretty much all of the scoring for Denver in the first quarter but there wasn’t much of it happening in general as the Nuggets were struggling from the floor. The tale of the first quarter would be the three point shooting. Denver was ice cold and the Spurs couldn’t miss. Kenneth Faried committed an offensive foul that Manu Ginobli turned into a dunk on the other end and at the end of one quarter the Nuggets were in a deep hole trailing the Spurs 16-32.
Will Barton got the second quarter started for the Nuggets with a bucket and then a steal that ultimately would result in a Richard Jefferson floater. He followed that up with another mid range bucket and the Spurs were forced to take a quick timeout. Denver’s bench had their lone bright momnt of the game and kept their strong play coming out of the timeout meanwhile the Spurs had suddenly went cold from the floor. San Antonio didn’t score until the 8:45 mark (a Bertans three...naturally) which ended a 12-0 Nuggets run (Barton: 5pts, 1 assist, 1 steal during the run). The Spurs veterans calmed things back down to stop the bleeding and responded with a 10-2 run of their own which forced coach Michael Malone to go back to his starters. Jokic continued to have success on offense but Leonard was keeping pace for the Spurs. The combo of Leonard, Ginobli and Aldridge closed out the half strong to keep the Spurs up double digits despite Jokic’s good play (16pts, 5 reb, 2 ast, 2 stl in 1st half).
Jokic got Denver going in the second half by getting Aldridge to pick up two quick fouls to give him four on the night and he had to go to the bench. The Nuggets scored the first six points of the quarter to cut San Antonio’s lead in half. A big reason the Nuggets weren’t able to completely close the gap was Jamal Murray was struggling mightily and Harris had cooled off considerably from the beginning of the game. Leonard made a pair of trips to the line, Green hit a three and just like that the Nuggets were back down by 13. The Spurs started to force the Nuggets into taking jumpshots which was not working for Denver. Jokic continued to be their only real source of offense and San Antonio converted on the other end to stretch their lead close to twenty. Harris finally found some rhythm again and Denver’s bench gave them some energy (though no buckets) to close out the quarter strong but they still trailed by thirteen points
The Spurs started the fourth quarter with a bench plus Aldridge lineup and they opened up a 7-0 run before Faried finally hit a jumper. Denver’s offense was pretty much non-existent through the first six minutes of the quarter as they mustered just five points. It was very apparent that their legs were giving out as the back to back caught up with them. Aldridge, who had to sit most of the third with foul trouble, was taking the Nuggets to task (7 points in 6 minutes). When he followed another Bertans three with a bucket of his own, coach Malone sent in the subs with the Nuggets trailing by 27 points. Emmanuel Mudiay and Juancho Hernangomez got to see some rare minutes but they weren’t able to get the Nuggets on the board either. Denver would end up scoring just 11 points in the quarter and take the loss.
Best matchup: Davis Bertans vs Nikola Jokic
When Bertans was in this matchup was tilted heavily in favor of the Spurs. As we’ve seen in the past, Jokic struggled guarding a quicker, smaller player out to the three point line. Bertans was able to get open fairly easily with his movement off ball and when his teammates found him with the basketball he converted his chances. Nikola did plenty of damage himself though, he consistently gave the Nuggets offense when there was no one else scoring. You could tell he felt good about his shot because there were only a few times where he looked hesitant with it. It was sort of the whole story with Nikola tonight, excellent offense and not terrible defense, but definitely noticeable where his limitations on that end are.
Main thing I noticed: the bench was no help on offense
Denver’s bench gave them very little in the ways of production tonight. Barton had a few moments but Lyles had a rare night off and there wasn’t much else to go off of. The Nuggets need a guy like Malik Beasley to start finding his groove more on offense. With Barton taking over more of the point guard duties Denver can’t rely on him and Lyles alone for all thier scoring from the bench. There were more than a couple times tonight where Beasley had some very good looks but unfortunately he couldn’t convert them. Faried and Jefferson also gave the Nuggets very little and whereas last night the 2nd unit was a big catalyst for the victory, tonight they were a major reason for the loss.
Closing thought: Nuggets “mini 3” needs to get consistent
The Nuggets don’t have a “big 3” in the sense of they have three guys who they are for sure going to build a franchise around, but it’s becoming clear that Jokic, Harris and Murray are the key components to any Denver victory. Unfortunately, it seems like its a rare occasion where all three of those guys are on at the same time. When the Nuggets have a game with one of those guys having an off night they’ve had Lyles to provide the extra punch. With Lyles and Murray both off tonight, Jokic and Harris had to shoulder the entire load and as good as those guys are, they just aren’t ready to carry a team all on their own like that.