The Denver Nuggets had only one option: win. In a winner take all game seven against the San Antonio Spurs, the Nuggets had the luxury of playing in front of their hometown fans and together they rose to the occasion. Behind some suffocating defense and another phenomenal performance from Nikola Jokic the Nuggets were able to hold off the Spurs and Demar DeRozan late and get a victory. Denver wins 90-86 and now will advance to the Western Conference Semi Finals where they will face the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Nuggets defense was outstanding to start the game. They stifled the Spurs and held them to just two points for over six minutes out of the gate. On the offensive end Jokic picked up right where he left off in game six by scoring six quick points. The Nuggets opened on a 12-2 run and couldn’t have asked for a better start. The Spurs were on an epic cold streak. They had four points in the first eight minutes of the game. The Nuggets unfortunately weren’t taking very good care of the basketball, with three early turnovers, and that prevented them from completely blowing the doors off the Spurs. They also were struggling with their three point shot. The game was very physical as well. Jakob Poetl and LaMarcus Aldridge both got into foul trouble early as they weren’t going to allow anything easy on the inside. Rudy Gay found pretty much the only offense the Spurs could speak of in the quarter towards the end. He scored nine straight for them which kept San Antonio breathing. Denver continued to struggle on their three point shots, they were just 1-9 but because of their incredible defense held a ten point lead after one.
Denver’s offense still sputtered with the bench in to start the second quarter. Will Barton missed a free throw, Malik Beasley and Paul Millsap missed wide open threes. Mason Plumlee got things rolling with his best stretch of the series, dominating the glass, getting an and-one and making a beautiful pass to a cutting Monte Morris. Whether it was the Nuggets defense or just putrid shooting on the Spurs part, San Antonio continued to struggle from the field. They barely improved on their abysmal start to the first quarter, this time getting their second basket after four and a half minutes of play. However, the story was similar to the first on the Nuggets end as well. They were unable to capitalize on the majority of their opportunities which kept them from putting serious distance between themselves and San Antonio. The Spurs started forcing the issue at the rim and the refs were giving them the calls. Jokic was playing big though, metaphorically and literally. Denver went to him in the post almost every time down and he was delivering. Millsap forced the issue as the quarter came to a close and got six quick points. Plumlee put the exclamation point on the half with a putback dunk that was so hard it broke the shot clock and the Nuggets closed the half with a 6-0 run and a 13 point lead.
Murray and Jokic opened the second half with the two man game and found some early success. It was clear that Murray’s leg was bothering him but he was gutting it out. He had six points, two on a beautiful feed from Jokic and Denver kept their lead right around a dozen. Gary Harris finally started to assert himself towards the midway point of the quarter. He got a floater in the lane, then a foul for two free throws (sunk both) and followed up with a transition three to force a Spurs timeout. Out of the timeout it was Murray providing the offense. The Spurs were getting a couple baskets here and there but Denver was maintaining a lead around fifteen. The Spurs weren’t going to let their season end that easily though. They pushed back, finally finding some consistent offense in the third. They had a strong close to the quarter with a 6-0 run before Monte Morris picked up a foul and got one of two from the free throw line. Despite the San Antonio Run, the Nuggets still held a double digit lead, ahead 72-61 after three.
Jokic had gone cold at the end of the third and that continued in the beginning of the fourth, he missed four shots in a row despite getting position down low. The Spurs chipped away at the lead with DeRozan and Bryn Forbes and were able to get it back into single digits. Jokic continued to struggle, he had already played a ton of minutes and it appeared as though he was going to play the entire fourth quarter. He finally got a little floater in the lane to push the Nuggets lead back up to ten with seven minutes to go. Out of a Spurs timeout coach Michael Malone elected to go with a Jokic plus four guards lineup. He surrounded the big man with Harris, Murray, Beasley and Barton. It didn’t have much success and Millsap quickly subbed in with the Nuggets up by eight.
The Spurs started taking the ball to the basket and possession by possession they ate away at the lead. DeRozan got to the cup just before the four minute mark to bring the Nuggets lead to just four. DeRozan was the go to guy for San Antonio down the stretch but he finally went cold and missed two straight shots. Forbes stepped up in his place. Hitting a big three and then later finishing a Nuggets turnover with a break away slam to cut the lead to two with 52 seconds to go. The Nuggets called a timeout and out of it Murray hit a clutch rainbow floater and then Craig rejected DeRozan on the other end. Murray waited until the end of the shot clock to shoot and miss a three but there was only two seconds left and nothing the Spurs could do. Nuggets win 90-86 and win the series four games to three.
Best matchup: Nikola Jokic vs LaMarcus Aldridge
The Joker once again did not disappoint. He hit a cold stretch as fatigue set in in the fourth quarter but battled through and was still key down the stretch with some big passes. He ended up with another monster triple double scoring twenty-one points, fifteen rebounds and ten assists. Joker has left no doubt that he is a generational center. His performance throughout the series was the main reason the Nuggets won and he’ll need to continue to be as good as he has for Denver to beat the Blazers in the next series. Aldridge meanwhile recovered from an abysmal first half to help give San Antonio a chance, he ended up scoring sixteen points but as was the case often this series, just was over matched throughout the game.
Main thing I noticed: the Nuggets got it done with a team effort
Yes Jokic was once again outstanding, but the Nuggets overcame some very poor shooting of their own to start the game by getting a full team effort. At one point it was Millsap bullying his way inside for six straight points, another was Harris knocking down a big three to cap off seven straight points. Murray ended up leading the Nuggets in scoring and had some massive buckets down the stretch. Craig had the game sealing block. This is the difficulty that Denver brings in every matchup. They are so solid one through five and so deep on their bench that it’s impossible to stop everyone. Yet, the difference between them and other “team first” clubs of the past is they have the unstoppable star player to build it around. When the Nuggets have everyone going they are unstoppable but if they can just get a couple of guys to play well around Nikola they’re pretty near unbeatable as well.
Closing thought: on to the next
Alright so it wasn’t a rout like I said it was but it was good enough. This was a massive win and cements this team in Nuggets history. Now, that’s probably more of a statement on the lack of playoff accomplishments in Nuggets history more than anything else but that still doesn’t diminish what an outstanding victory this is. The first round demons that plagued the most recent Nuggets playoff teams will not be the story of this team. Now they can focus on writing their own story against the Blazers. Once again Denver has the talent advantage and, like the Spurs, the Blazers suffer from a glaring weakness: they have no one who can stop Nikola. The Nuggets played for this opportunity. They played for it all season by securing the two seed and ensuring the home court advantage in the conference semi finals. They left little doubt at the end of the season that they preferred the Blazers in the second round to other Western Conference opponents Time to get it done.