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Playoff series preview: Denver Nuggets vs San Antonio Spurs

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The key matchup may be on the sideline rather than on the floor

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

After 82 games, numerous injuries, several startling performances and pulling a few rabbits out of hats, the second-seeded Denver Nuggets return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. They face the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs, which is a sore spot with fans who remember their casual decimation of the Carmelo-Anthony-led Nuggets in 2005 and 2007. The same coach is at the helm for the Spurs now, though lacking a Tim Duncan to dispatch the Nuggets quite that easily.

That said this is a matchup that will require the Nuggets to bring the focus that has been missing for the past few weeks. Gregg Popovich will have his team prepared to take advantage of any Nuggets mistakes, and Denver cannot afford to spot the Spurs even a single game. The playoffs are unfamiliar to most of Denver’s players, but they’ll need to hit the ground running - perhaps literally - to continue achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves this year.

What Denver Brings

Jokic-ball. The Nuggets have figured out how to defend decently around their unconventional center (mostly thanks to the efforts of Paul Millsap) but the heartbeat of the team will always be his unique offensive creation. This year didn’t feel as flashy as years past, but Nikola Jokic put up the sort of numbers only seen five decades ago in the NBA by a big man.

The Nuggets have a bundle of guards who should be able to score, but injuries have reduced the effectiveness several members of that cadre, most seriously Gary Harris and Will Barton. Those injuries led to the emergence of Monte Morris and Malik Beasley, however, and it will be up to coach Michael Malone to figure out how to find the hot hand among all the guard choices in a shortened rotation.

What San Antonio Brings

Execution. The Spurs held Denver to an average of 103 points per game in their first three meetings this year. Two of those were without Paul Millsap, but Popovich respects both Jokic and Michael Malone and managed to curtail Denver’s offensive output without having an all-world paint defender like Rudy Gobert to deploy.

The Spurs will be disciplined, understand Malone’s own holy grail of defending without fouling, and have enough offensive weapons to cause Denver problems. They are also extremely patient about creating the right shot, as the Spurs are top-two in the league in both three point percentage and two point percentage. Far from being a run-and-gun team, the Spurs remain methodical and boring executioners, and the Nuggets need to avoid sticking their heads under that guillotine.

Key Things to Watch

1) Free throws. As our own Adam Mares said once the matchup was finalized, the Spurs are good at not fouling and Denver is lousy at getting to the line:

Jokic has already been tossed a pair of times in the last month due to vocal disagreements with the way his fouls are being adjudicated, and the calls will only get stingier in this series. The Nuggets will have to find ways to score despite non-calls, and to force some calls with aggressive play inside. But getting calls is not how Denver has made their bones this season and won’t be how they win this series. Griping about it to the officials could be how they lose it, though, and no doubt Malone is emphasizing that every day to his All-World center.

Advantage: Refs

Advice: Denver has excellent appetite stimulants now, as well as tons of great restaurants. I’m not saying you wine and dine the refs, but some casual recommendations before tip-off and a display of decorum during Game 1 might go a long way toward making Game 2 a fair fight.

2) Veteran experience. Denver has Millsap, who will be making his 10th trip to the playoffs and has 87 games under his belt already. Mason Plumlee has 27, Will Barton has 7 off the bench.... and that’s it for Denver’s rotation pieces, unless you want to count the 10 minutes Trey Lyles scraped together over a pair of games with the Utah Jazz. Isaiah Thomas may be the playoff advisor of this squad, but the rest of Denver’s players are in uncharted territory. When you home brew a roster with lottery picks that’s what happens - and it puts Denver under more pressure since they need to come out strong at home. If the Spurs had home court maybe the Nuggets could take a game to find their footing, but they need to come out strong from the jump in Game 1 to avoid relinquishing the home court they just fought for 82 long games to get.

The Spurs have DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge as their veteran linchpins, but DeRozan has to overcome the playoff yips that have affected him in past years while Aldridge has to hold off Denver’s bigger front court with little expected assistance from the rest of San Antonio’s big men. The playoff spotlight won’t scare San Antonio’s best players, nor their coach. The Spurs will grind out every possession, exploit every weakness, and push Denver both offensively and defensively to create more cracks. Denver will have to be just as patient, something this season has hopefully taught them, and exploit their own mismatches to their fullest.

Advantage: Spurs

Advice: Accept that San Antonio is used to this and use the extra energy of the playoff crowd and atmosphere as a boost. Denver’s offense has been just 22nd best in the league since the All-Star Break and if any unit could use that infusion of energy to return to the cutting, dynamic approach from earlier in the year it would be Denver’s. Everything about this season has been new and different for the Nuggets. No sense in being afraid of the unknown now.

3) Bench, meet bench. Jamal Murray has had an inconsistent season full of terrific highs and some inconsistent lows. Harris and Barton have struggled through injury and are still regaining form. But the guys who have carried water for Denver all season no matter the circumstance have been Denver’s bench trio of Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Mason Plumlee.

Playing with a true point guard again has helped Plumlee regain his Portland form and impact, while Beasley’s shooting numbers (over 40% from three on 5 attempts per game) dramatically improved his impact as well. He’s been the sharpshooter Denver desperately needed, and his open court finishes aren’t bad either. But Morris is the uncovered gem of this season, the point guard who can steady the offense when Jokic is out and who can still get his own bucket. In fact, comparing him to Ty Lawson at the same age isn’t out of bounds. As the rotations shorten in the playoffs, those three will only get more opportunities to pay off Denver’s depth.

But the Spurs have similar bench contributors. Patty Mills is the older version of Morris, the steady hand guiding the reserves. Marco Belinelli has had too many good performances against Denver as a bench sniper to be ignored - though something tells me Denver will ignore him for at least one game while I throw things and swear - and Jakob Poeltl is something of an X factor himself. The Spurs really need someone to soak minutes and contribute as a large body against Plumlee and Jokic and to keep San Antonio within reach in the rebounding stats. If Poeltl can do that, it really will be an extended series for Denver.

Advantage: Denver

Advice: give Morris more run in the playoffs. Mistakes are amplified in the postseason, and Morris simply makes fewer than almost any guard in the league. Don’t be afraid to let him shoulder the burden of the offense as the Spurs focus on Jokic.

4) Home court. The Nuggets haven’t won in San Antonio since March of 2012, during Corey Brewer’s inaugural season in Denver. Arron Afflalo and Ty Lawson were the guard combo for that squad, which feels so far in the past it might as well have been chiseled on stone tablets. But the Nuggets have the best home record in the NBA this year and have taken 5 of 6 from San Antonio in the Mile High altitude. I don’t want to beat Denver’s home court to death, as it’s not the same as running teams out of the gym like they did when George Karl was here, but each team views defending the home court as crucial to winning the series. Denver cannot afford to crack first and let the Spurs breathe easier going back to San Antonio for Game 3.

Advantage: None

Advice: Yell your heads off in the Pepsi Center, until the Spurs can’t think straight, and hope it helps.

5) Coaching matchup. Michael Malone vs. Gregg Popovich. This is a matchup of two very good friends who will enjoy every second of competing against one another. Just check out this press conference crashing by Pop after he got thrown out of the game a minute into the last matchup of the season between these two teams:

But it seemed like Pop got thrown out of that game on purpose - and let his coaching staff run a dumbed-down version of their system, and if that is the case, he did it for a reason. He willingly threw the game in order to keep his cards close to his vest, knowing this might be the first round matchup. Not a lot of coaches are that ballsy, but Pop just might be and Malone is going to have to keep up with his friend and mentor, and the man he credits with getting him a stable career in the NBA after sharing a week at a basketball camp with Pop in Argentina.

Popovich has seen it all. He hasn’t missed the playoffs in more than two decades. His Spurs teams have sometimes faltered in the second season but some of that is because of the coaching job that Pop did to get them to play over their heads anyway. Malone needs to match Pop’s chess game, especially as the mentor will likely play to take away Jokic’s offensive initiation and force it into the hands of Denver’s guards. Malone has never been the head man in a playoff series in the NBA, and his time to learn the ropes is even shorter than that of his players.

Advantage: Spurs

Advice: fit Pop for some cement shoes and toss him in the Cherry Creek Reservoir, maybe. If that doesn’t work and he climbs out of the water like Rasputin after you poison and shoot him, then just accept your fate. Also, have Plans B and C ready for when Pop takes away Plan A because you know he will try.

Wildcard

Jokic. LaMarcus Aldridge is a ridiculously talented, multiple-time All Star. DeMar DeRozan is an explosion of two-point fireworks across the court every night. But Nikola Jokic will still be the most talented player on the court in this series, and everything in Denver relies on him to know that and act on it. Jokic does not like to be the focus off the court but he will definitely be it on the hardwood for the Spurs. If he allows them to take him out of his game - out of the gameplan that Denver needs to execute in order to win the first two games of this series - then Denver will be in a world of trouble. No one knows how Nikola will react to the playoffs, not even Nikola.

Denver needs him to blossom and accept the challenge of lifting this team on his shoulders in order to see the second round.

Let the games begin.