For days, Denver Nuggets fans dreamed of watching this Nuggets team in a playoff environment. The lights are bright. The pressure is high. The stars are shining for a national audience to see. When the Nuggets found themselves in the 2 seed and far away from the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Utah Jazz, fans cheered, daring to dream of seeing Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and the rest of the squad in the Western Conference Finals.
Only, Denver still had to get there.
The Nuggets let one slip in Game 1 and nearly let another go in Game 2. With the series against the San Antonio Spurs tied 1-1, Nuggets fans were painfully reminded of the intense pressure of the postseason, how easy it is to slip up and let a well-prepared Gregg Popovich squad laden with veterans steal a game on the road. Now, in order to walk out of the first round with games still on the schedule, the Nuggets must do the same.
Game 2 wasn’t Jamal Murray’s best game...until it was. 21 points on 8/9 from the field in the fourth quarter saved Denver’s bacon. It was the most points Murray had in any quarter this season outside of a 22 point outburst against the Chicago Bulls in January. Drastically worse team. Dramatically lower stakes. Murray sure loves to be dramatic, but he got the job done. I think it’s safe to say that he won’t have another 20-point quarter this series though, especially on the road. How can the Nuggets compensate for that? Which players rise to the occasion to make up for it? Can Denver avoid getting down big in the first place?
Time will tell.
Who: Denver Nuggets at San Antonio Spurs
Where: AT&T Center, San Antonio, TX
When: 7:00 PM MT
How to watch: Altitude/NBA TV
Rival blog: Pounding the Rock
Injury Report: Michael Porter Jr - out (back); Dejounte Murray - out (knee)
Three Questions for Tonight’s Game
How will the road atmosphere change for the Nuggets play?
If Denver’s young guns thought Denver’s crowd was intense, just wait until they play at AT&T Center. The Spurs have a notably hostile crowd that rises to the occasion every playoff series in which they participate, and they have a lot of experience. 22 straight years of being in the playoffs has taught Spurs fans exactly for to will their team into positive runs and needle opposing players into bad decisions. How the Nuggets handle the crowd will teach Nuggets fans a lot about which players are ready for the playoff intensity. The old adage is that role players shoot the ball worse on the road. If that holds up, the Nuggets will need Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and especially Paul Millsap to come up big. Each guy had 20+ in Game 2, but can they recreate that in Game 3?
Can Will Barton recover his confidence before it’s too late?
It was clear as day that Barton was shaken up by missing so many shots in Games 1 and 2. He shot a combined 7/25 from the field, and Nuggets fans let him know it toward the end of his Game 2 minutes, which culminated in a shot from the corner that hit the side of the backboard. Life has not been easy for Barton in this series. He has to contend with DeMar DeRozan for most of his minutes and defend the larger player, and he quite simply hasn’t found his perimeter shot to begin this series.
Michael Malone told reporters yesterday that Barton will remain in the starting lineup despite his struggles, and I agree with the decision. It would be hypocritical of Malone to back Jamal Murray in Game 2 and not show Barton the same love in Game 3. That doesn’t necessarily mean Barton will be given the exact same opportunity though. Malik Beasley has spaced the floor reasonably well in this playoff series thus far, and his ability to get out in transition could help the Nuggets generate easier points on the road in an unfriendly environment. I expect Malone to give Beasley as many or more minutes than Barton at small forward for the rest of this series. Hopefully, both rise to the occasion and play well. If Barton continues to struggle, Malone may be forced to change the starting lineup in Game 4 whether he likes it or not.
How will San Antonio get LaMarcus Aldridge going, and can Denver respond to that counter?
Thus far, Nikola Jokic has been excellent guarding LaMarcus Aldridge in the post. According to NBA.com’s play type data, Aldridge has scored just 10 points on just 2/15 from the field in 19 post up possessions, mostly against Denver’s Serbian center. That is incredible defense, and so much of those misses have come from Jokic pushing Aldridge nearly out to the three-point line, preventing him from getting sound post position.
Jokic has done an excellent job of using his frame and preventing Aldridge from getting past Jokic’s left shoulder to the middle of the floor. That step back jumper above should be a familiar looking shot for Nuggets fans, as Aldridge has used it on many occasions. Sometimes, he hits it, but Denver will live with it rather than a hook shot in the middle of the paint. It also forces Aldridge to use his turnaround jumper more often, a shot he hasn’t hit frequently on Jokic in Games 1 or 2.
Jokic has slowly figured out how to defend Aldridge over the course of this season. He has three primary moves.
- Hook shot after stepping through the defender into the middle of the floor
- Step back jumper moving to his right
- Turnaround jumper going back to his left
How the Spurs get around Aldridge’s reduced efficiency is the single biggest key to this series in my opinion. Denver showed they could win with Barton going 1/10 from the field. San Antonio showed they could win without DeRozan or Aldridge performing at their best. How will the Spurs help Aldridge get going in this series? Will they run more sets to try and get Aldridge switched onto a smaller defender? Will they look to attack Millsap and his smaller frame instead of Jokic, even though common sense says they should seek out Jokic every time?
I bet the Spurs’ counter likely involves Aldridge isolating against Mason Plumlee as often as possible when Millsap or Jokic aren’t defending him though. If Plumlee has a big game 3 or 4 defensively, the Nuggets can steal one on the road. Keeping Aldridge inefficient for the entirety of the series would be a major victory for Denver, but San Antonio will try to figure out how to get him efficient post shots if at all possible. Let’s just hope it doesn’t involve seeking out foul trouble for Nikola Jokic exclusively.