The Denver Nuggets faced the San Antonio Spurs for the second time in three nights on Friday. After dropping the first contest in San Antonio, round two was at the Nuggets house. No doubt looking for revenge, Denver came out early with energy and got big performances from their stars Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray. The energy faded in the second half however and hometown kid Derrick White put on a show for the Spurs and the crowd to bring San Antonio roaring back with some help from Demar Derozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. The Nuggets ultimately proved to have just enough in the tank to get the win, but also potentially paid a heavy price with both Malik Beasley and Jamal Murray tweaking their ankles in the process.
The Nuggets opened with a turnover and a couple missed shots, but resilience on defense and the offensive glass got them on the scoreboard first. Gregg Popovich called an early timeout to set things straight for San Antonio but the Nuggets were playing aggressive, particularly through Jokic, to get an 8-0 run. The Nuggets were out hustling the Spurs as well. In particular their advantage on the offensive glass was causing San Antonio problems. Denver nearly pushed the lead to double digits before the Spurs pushed back with a 7-1 run of their own. Malone went to the bench with Jokic and Murray still in the lineup around the three minute mark and they were able to respond. The game picked up its pace and the Nuggets lead pushed back up to nine. Then with about a minute left in the quarter Malone subbed Murray for Brandon Goodwin in a rare early appearance for the two-way contract player. Malik Beasley closed out the quarter strong, including a nice alley-oop finish, to give the Nuggets a 31-23 advantage after one.
Denver opened the second quarter much like they played the first, fast and through Jokic with some support from Beasley. Denver was able to match every bucket San Antonio put up and kept their advantage right around ten. Jokic pulled a post move that made the defense look silly, Beasley followed it up with a three and it was all Nuggets early in the second. Both teams cooled off around the midway point until Murray and Aldridge got it going again for the Nuggets and Spurs respectively. Murray was getting into his Blue Arrow mode and the Spurs were having a hard time keeping up. By the time he finally missed a heat check the Nuggets lead had ballooned to eighteen. Unfortunately the Nuggets couldn’t close it out strongly as Aldridge got an and-one and Patty Mills followed that up with a three. Murray at least would finish it off with a nice move in the lane to give himself twenty-one points in the half and the Nuggets a commanding 61-47 lead after two quarters.
Denver struggled to get their offense going out of the half and the Spurs were able to get a couple buckets for a quick 6-0 run. The Nuggets weren’t taking care of the basketball early in the half, their turnovers kept them from getting a field goal for the first three and half minutes of the quarter. Their energy also seemed to have completely died off and the Spurs kept chipping away at the lead. White was giving San Antonio some great minutes and feeding off the crowd that was no doubt happy to see the Colorado kid playing well. Finally, Joker got an easy bucket in the lane and followed it with a nice assist to Murray at the rim to calm things back down and force San Antonio to take a timeout. The Spurs, and White, didn’t relent after the T.O. He crashed the basket for a strong putback dunk to pull the Spurs within four with about five minutes to go. As the quarter was winding down both teams seemed to be lacking in energy and it showed with some sloppy play. The one player who was playing all out was White. He was almost single handedy bringing back San Antonio one highlight dunk at a time. Both teams had a final boost down the stretch and the Nuggets narrowly clung to their lead 78-75.
The Nuggets bench was up to the task of fending off the Spurs early in the fourth. Beasley continued to hit shots and Monte Morris was his usual solid self. The Spurs wouldn’t let Denver break away though. The Nuggets took a tough blow around the eight minute mark when Beasley drove to the lane and drew a foul but unfortunately tweaked his ankle. He toughed out the two free throws but had to exit the game. San Antonio and Denver traded punch and counter punch through the mid portion of the quarter, every time the Spurs closed in on the lead, Denver got a basket to push back ahead. The Nuggets were maintaining the lead but also barely staying on their feet. Murray was the next Nugget to go down with an ankle tweak, his of the freak variety at the top of the three point line. He gritted it out as he always does but it was no doubt affecting him. Derozan was consistently getting big shots for the Spurs. He picked up two free throws just inside two minutes to get San Antonio within two points. Jokic came back with a floater in the lane and then won a big jump ball to keep the Nuggets up by three with a minute to go but the Nuggets turned the ball over and Derozan drew a foul on Joker which was his sixth. Derozan got one of two and then the Nuggets turned the ball over again and fouled White on the other end who also went one of two. The Nuggets were up by one with 28 seconds and the ball and the Spurs elected to not foul but Morris drew one by driving to the basket. He knocked down both to give Denver a three point lead with 7 ticks left. The Spurs tried to get a three from Bryn Forbes in the far corner but the pass got tangled up in Mason Plumlee’s feet and deflected out of bounds with 0.7 seconds to go. Forbes was unable to get a shot off in time on the inbound and the Nuggets escaped 102-99.
Key matchup: Nikola Jokic vs Lamarcus Aldridge
The big men did not disappoint tonight. Both Aldridge and Jokic were major contributors on the stat sheet for their teams and had clutch plays down the stretch. It was a nice bounce back for the Joker after he scored just four points in the last contest. He ended up just a rebound and an assist shy of a triple double as well. Aldridge saw a lot more of Jokic tonight then he did Plumlee on the defensive end and to the Joker’s credit he made LA work for his points. Aldridge still ended up with twenty-four points but it would take him twenty-two shots to get it. Jokic also out worked him on the glass, in particular in the first half when Denver built their lead.
Main thing I noticed: Derrick White came to play
The Nuggets had a good chance of running away with a win in this one but White, the hometown kid, wasn’t having any of it. No doubt feeling extra juiced playing in front of several friends and family, White was a walking highlight reel tonight. For the most part both teams didn’t look like they had a ton of energy, particularly in the third quarter, but White was the one guy who was going full speed all night long. He crashed the offensive glass relentlessly and used his athleticism to draw cheers from the crowd on more than one occasion. Pretty much as good as you could hope to write it up from this perspective: Denver gets the win, but White was the player who shined the brightest.
Closing thought: the injuries are getting ridiculous
The biggest take away from this game is the injuries to Malik Beasley and Jamal Murray. Both of them tweaked their ankles pretty hard. Malik did not return to the game and Murray hobbled through it but it’ll be interesting to see how that ankle feels in the morning. The Nuggets have no time to rest with a game in Phoenix against the Suns tomorrow and I’m starting to wonder just who they are going to have play. Brandon Goodwin could see extended minutes and Tyler Lydon may even be needed to play some small forward minutes as well.