Well, that wasn’t the most fun game to watch.
The Denver Nuggets finally dropped a close one. For the majority of the regular season, the Nuggets made their money in clutch situations, operating around Nikola Jokic as the focal point. Tonight? The pendulum swung the other way as Jamal Murray missed an open mid-range jumper to take the lead with six seconds left. The San Antonio Spurs earned a 101-96 victory through meticulous execution from role players like Derrick White and Bryn Forbes. Jokic attempted just nine shots but racked up 14 assists, which undersold the number of open passes he created for the rest of the starting unit.
Here are five primary takeaways from Game 1:
1. The shooting struggles continue
For many, the story of the game will be Jokic’s lack of shooting attempts, especially to close the game. However, that misappropriates the number of open shots he generated for his teammates. The Nuggets shot just 6/28 from behind the three-point line, and it felt worse than that. Torrey Craig hit two of his three attempts from outside, meaning the rest of the Nuggets, the ones supposed to hit those shots with high efficiency, hit just 4/25.
That level of abysmal shooting probably won’t sustain for the rest of the series but the Nuggets have shot poorly for long enough that they might need to find another way to score. Passing up the open shots hasn’t worked either, as the majority of those possessions ended with low efficiency mid-range attempts or turnovers trying to force a shot that wasn’t there.
There’s a cutoff point for the team’s three-point percentage where anything below simply removes Denver’s chances of winning. They shot 21.4 percent tonight. That won’t get it done
2. Jokic’s brilliant performance nullified by lack of shooting possessions
Make no mistake about it: Jokic was the best player on the floor tonight. He didn’t have the most points, but he impacted the game every minute he was out there. From excellent defense covering DeMar DeRozan on pick and rolls (6/17 from the field) or LaMarcus Aldridge in the post (6/19 from the field) Jokic showcased the ability to move laterally and play intelligent defense throughout the game. That more than anything kept the Nuggets in this one.
But the story will inevitably be the nine shot attempts. When Denver needed a scorer desperately, Jokic was content to work for the best shot by playing the same game the Nuggets have for the majority of the 2018-19 season. He was unselfish in racking up 14 assists, and that number certainly could have been higher had Denver’s shooters been more accurate. The Spurs were content to let Murray, Harris, and Barton beat them tonight as long as Jokic didn’t, and it worked out. The three guards combined to shoot 21 of 51 from the field, good for just 41.2 percent from the field.
We will soon find out if the Nuggets can play their beautiful, unselfish game against a team that loads up to stop Jokic as a scorer. It didn’t work out for the Nuggets tonight, but I wouldn’t abandon those principles just because Denver’s supporting cast couldn’t make the Spurs pay for this strategy. If Murray, Harris, and Barton continue to shoot poorly, it says more about their playoff readiness than Jokic, whose reads were excellent for the majority of the game.
3. Derrick White and Bryn Forbes are perfect complements to DeRozan and Aldridge
What those two role players did for the Spurs tonight was extremely impressive. Both guys were seasoned college veterans coming into the NBA, and in entering Spurs University, they have continued to develop into smart pieces. White put up 16 points and five assists, shooting 7/10 from the field. He had a monster dunk on Paul Millsap in transition, and his strip steal of Murray in the closing seconds encapsulated his defensive abilities perfectly.
Derrick White unloads on Paul Millsap pic.twitter.com/R54oLHfV8r— Wobrick White (@WorldWideWob) April 14, 2019
Forbes added to the role player party, scoring 15 points on nine shots and shooting 3/4 from beyond the arc. His ability to fly off of screens made it difficult for the Nuggets to provide help on DeRozan and Aldridge for most of the game. When the Nuggets sank too deep into the paint, the Spurs made them pay consistently, Forbes chief among them.
If the Nuggets want to win some playoff games they will need stand out performances from Morris, Beasley, Harris, and Barton. Harris delivered tonight, but the others were hit or miss. I’d like to see whether Beasley can step up and play some minutes next to Jokic consistently. He’s Denver’s best perimeter shooter and has the play style to change a game.
4. Denver’s defense was playoff ready but needs to stay consistent
The Nuggets can’t control whether the Spurs hit contested shots or not. All they can do is contest as many as they can and hope the math bends back in their favor.
Second Spectrum shot quality (likelihood of average player converting)— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) April 14, 2019
DEN 49.3, SAS 46.1
Difference between probability and actual eFG: -3.9, SAS +6.3
Spurs’ differential largest of today.
Basically, the Spurs’ expected eFG% today based on the quality of shots they attempted was 46.1%, but they actually had an eFG% of 52.4%. That means Denver’s process was as good as anyone could’ve asked for but the Spurs just hit a lot more shots than expected.
As the Nuggets grow more comfortable with the playoff environment and the Spurs regress a bit to the mean, I expect the scoring totals to shift the other way. The Nuggets generated decent enough looks to win the game. All Denver can do is trust the same game plan and hit the shots they know they can hit.
5. Michael Malone made one crucial mistake tonight
For the most part, I thought Malone pushed the right buttons but one key mistake hurt Denver late in the game. With 55 seconds left in the 4th quarter, the Nuggets were granted an offensive rebound with an opportunity to take the lead. At that point, the Nuggets had two timeouts, and Malone used one to draw up a play. It led to a Jokic turnover, but Denver wasn’t hurt after the Spurs missed two opportunities to extend their lead on the other end. With 13 seconds left, Malone called his last timeout.
At that point, the Nuggets got a great look off of a Murray mid range jumper, but the shot missed. The Nuggets put the Spurs on the free throw line with just under seven seconds left, but with no timeouts remaining, the Nuggets had to dribble the ball the length of the floor. At that point, Murray had the ball stolen by White while crossing half court, and the game was all but over.
In this situation, Malone might want to save his timeout with 55 seconds left. The Nuggets have a number of out of bounds plays to choose from in that situation, but with no timeouts at the end, Denver had no opportunity to draw up a play to try and tie the game. Maybe Malone thought the expected value of getting a good shot at 55 seconds without a timeout was low, so he tried to calm his team’s nerves. Either way, the Nuggets didn’t get a shot up on either possession.
This playoff series will teach Nuggets fans a lot about Michael Malone and how he likes to approach these situations. For the most part, I thought he was excellent, but the clock management at the end of the game is something to watch over the course of these playoffs.
Coming out slowly was always a possibility. The Spurs have been to the playoffs for 22 consecutive years. This was Denver’s first trip to the post-season with this roster. Growth takes time, failure, and process, and narratives need not be drawn before the completion of this series is seen through.
The Nuggets are a resilient bunch and they learn quickly. If Denver makes one more three-pointer tonight, they might have won, and that would’ve put them at a sterling 25 percent on their three-pointers. Imagine if they hit 35 percent? Or 40 percent?
That version of the Nuggets is still around. Let’s see if the Nuggets can find it before it’s too late.