After six years the Denver Nuggets returned to the playoffs against an old nemesis in the San Antonio Spurs. As the two seed the Nuggets got the homecourt advantage but also the pressure to get off to a strong start. Perhaps the nerves got the better of them because they were absolutely awful from the floor. They shot 21% from three and scored just 96 points despite Nikola Jokic getting a triple double in his NBA Playoff debut. The Spurs used an all around effort with five players in double figures and overcame sub par perforamnces from their stars LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. Denver made a strong effort late, but ultimately and literally fumbled it away. The Spurs get the 101-96 game one win and take home court advantage in the series.
Denver’s defense started out strong but the adrenaline was high and they took some quick shots early on. Jokic got them settled down with a layup and then a beautiful backdoor feed to Gary Harris. The Nuggets defense continued to be outstanding through the beginning of the quarter, but they weren’t converting on the other end which limited them to a two point lead. Joker carried Denver on offense, he exploited his matchup with Jakob Poetl who picked up his second foul midway through the quarter and had to check out. That made the Spurs go to Aldridge in the post but Denver’s defense remained stingy as ever. Still, the Nuggets weren’t hitting any of their shots despite getting some good looks. San Antonio was able to take advantage and piece together a run with a metaphorical lid on Denver’s basket and outscored the Nuggets 12-3 to close out the quarter with a five point lead.
Paul Millsap carried the Nuggets offense early in the second quarter but the Spurs were getting to the paint for easy layups or fouls. Malik Beasley got five points and the Nuggets were hanging tough but the referees had a very tight whistle which San Antonio benefited from. Denver’s defense fell off as the quarter progressed which allowed the Spurs to grow their lead. By the time the starters came back in Denver trailed by double digits. The starters brought back the defense and Harris got going which forced Greg Popovich to call timeout. Murray and Barton joined the scoring and the momentum felt like it was about to shift but the Spurs were hitting shots on their end as well. Rudy Gay hit a couple of key shots down the stretch and despite a beautiful layup by Murray to close the half Denver trailed by eight.
The Nuggets got off to a less than auspicious start, with a Derrick White bucket and a turnover on the other end but Barton was starting to get some shots to fall and the Nuggets got things turned around quickly. After a strong finish from Barton Denver had trimmed the Spurs lead to three. San Antonio was defending Jokic with the double team throughout the game, he was making the correct passes and piling up the assists but the Nuggets still struggled just enough to keep the Spurs in front. White had an incredible poster dunk on Millsap for an and-one which forced a Denver timeout. The Nuggets continued to be ice cold from three while Aldridge finally found his shot and the Spurs pushed the lead back. The poor shooting from three started to manifest itself on all shots as Denver just couldn’t buy a basket. Jokic seemed to be the only one who was able to hit shots but he was still being double teamed every time down and kept having to pass out. Denver pushed back to have a strong close to the quarter and behind that cut the lead to four.
Malik Beasley nearly one-upped that Derrick White poster pic.twitter.com/GG4HiHEpbM— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) April 14, 2019
The Nuggets had another bad start to a quarter, getting called for two quick fouls, giving up a three to Patty Mills and then immediately turning it over and getting called for another foul. Monte Morris settled things down with a floater and then executed the pick and roll with Mason Plumlee which resulted in a kick out to Torrey Craig who finally hit a three for Denver. Denver kept the lead around six but they just couldn’t get over the hump. Craig was the one guy who could hit from outside which kept putting the Nuggets within a posession of taking the lead. The starters began to check back in as the lead continued to hang around a half dozen. Denver got it down to one but the Spurs pushed back before the last of the starters checked back in down six with four to go. Murray had a great play stealing the ball away from Gay after a rebound and then drawing and converting an and-one. He nailed a jumper with just over a minute to go after that to pull Denver within one but Jokic turned it over after the Nuggets got a stop and a chance for a lead. The Nuggets got another stop with thirteen seconds to go to set up a shot for a buzzer beating win. Murray got an open mid range jumper with about ten seconds to go but missed and the Nuggets had to foul Aldridge. He hit both free throws and then Murray turned the ball over dribbling it up the court. Spurs seal the deal and win game 1.
Key matchup: Nikola Jokic vs LaMarcus Aldridge
Both of these guys struggled to get their offense going early. Jokic found ways to effect the game through his passing, and the Nuggets absolutely were at their best when they ran the offense through him. Still, despite all the passing the double team was effective in limiting his ability to score. Aldridge on the other hand just struggled to make shots with Denver playing tight defense on him. He found his rhythm in the second half though and it was clear that when Poetl was out of the game and Jokic was matched up on LA the Spurs were going to feed him the basketball. Joker did an admirable job defending Aldridge and ended up getting the better of the matchup. Still, the Nuggets will have to figure out a way to get him more shots in game two.
Main thing I noticed: the shooting, so bad
Denver was absolutely atrocious shooting the basketball, particularly from outside. The Spurs defensive strategy of constantly doubling Jokic was mainly effective because the Nuggets just couldn’t buy a basket from outside. If they had shot anywhere close to average they win this game going away. It’s encouraging that they were able to still give themselves a chance, primarily through their defense, and you have to believe that they won’t shoot it this poorly again in the series. Still, its becoming a disturbing trend how they’ve struggled as of late with their shooting, particularly from beyond the arc.
Closing thought: it’ll be ok
I’m honestly not all that discouraged by this loss. Like I said, Denver can’t shoot it that bad again, or at least I don’t expect them too. The Spurs can double team Jokic all they want but if Denver starts hitting shots its going to force San Antonio to adapt. There really isn’t a ton I see the Nuggets needing to make in term of adjustments. They did an outstanding job containing Aldridge and Derozan, and that was mainly a result of excellent defense which they’ll need to keep up. I have a feeling the Nuggets bounce back in a big way in game 2 and then re-take control of the series in San Antonio.