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What We’ve Learned: The Spurs illuminated some flaws in the Nuggets, and some strengths

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Looking back on the Spurs-Nuggets series in preparation for what’s to come.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that was fun. The Denver Nuggets are in fact not frauds.

The San Antonio Spurs pushed an inexperienced Nuggets squad to the absolute brink, fighting back from down 17 points in a Game 7 on the road. All credit to the Spurs for making this a game. They couldn’t shoot from anywhere in the first half and suddenly turned it on.

But the Nuggets weathered the storm. With a 90-86 win, the Nuggets will move onto the second round for the first time in 10 years. The last time they did so, they advanced to the Western Conference Finals and lost to the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers. That was the one and only time Carmelo Anthony and company won a playoff series. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, and this group of frauds did it on their first try.

Here are the seven major takeaways from Denver’s seven game first round series.

1. Nikola Jokic is a legitimate star

Jokic finished his first ever playoff series with 164 points, 85 rebounds, and 62 assists across seven games. No player in NBA history has ever crossed those thresholds in a playoff series, according to Basketball Reference.

The Serbian big man had his struggles at times, especially with fatigue. Down the stretch of Game 7, Jokic couldn’t buy a bucket. He was exhausted though, and for good reason. Jokic finished with 261 minutes played, a total only four centers have matched or exceeded in the 2010s. With the load Jokic had to carry, it’s certainly understandable. He does everything for Denver.

But Jokic mustered enough energy in the only Game 7 of the first round to take down a team game planning for his every weakness. That’s a what a legitimate star does — elevate beyond the scouting report and do things the opposition cannot stop him from doing. In the second round, each team has a face of the franchise or two that stands out in similar ways. In the East, Giannis Antetokounmpo will be facing Kyrie Irving, while Kawhi Leonard and Joel Embiid are doing battle. In the West, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry will wage war against James Harden. The Portland Trail Blazers, Denver’s next opponent, feature an absolute flamethrower in Damian Lillard and the best leader in the NBA.

Jokic has taken the next step and has affirmed his placement among that pantheon of stars. There’s a decent argument that the nine stars I mentioned plus LeBron James are the top 10 players in the NBA right now. This is the time when stars shine. Jokic has proven he belongs in this group, but now he has an opportunity to move up the list with a solid showing against the Blazers.

2. The Nuggets defense locked in when necessary

86 points for the Spurs in Game 7. 35 points on 37 shots for DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. Denver had its own issues offensively, but when the going got rough, Denver got defensive. San Antonio finished with a 94.5 Offensive Rating in this game, the 10th worst of the entire playoff field thus far. The Nuggets flew around, gave incredible effort, and made life challenging for the two Spurs stars for most of the game.

Will this carry over to a series against the Blazers? Difficult to say. Portland’s stars do an even better job of making tough shots than DeRozan and Aldridge. CJ McCollum is notorious for attempting the worst kind of shots and making them with elite efficiency, an excellent tool during a playoff series. With the Nuggets likely to start the same lineup (Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Paul Millsap, Nikola Jokic) against the Blazers on Monday, I expect Denver to guard Lillard with Harris and McCollum with Craig. We will see if those guys — and Jokic in pick and roll coverage — have the same success against some long range snipers.

3. Michael Malone coached his butt off and will continue to learn from his mistakes

It wasn’t perfect from Malone in his first coaching job from the head coach’s box, but it was damn well good enough. Denver needed Malone, their true leader, to instill a sense of calm urgency, an oxymoron for the ages. He delivered, repeatedly putting Jokic, Murray, and the rest of the group in places to succeed. The Nuggets players absorbed the scouting report and forced the Spurs players into their worst tendencies much of the time. That and calling some killer ATOS are about all Malone can be asked to do from a game to game basis.

Now, the pressure intensifies even more. The Nuggets fought hard for seven games and will be forced to play their next game on Monday night. Will the Nuggets be prepared physically and mentally for the challenge? Will Malone be able to push the right buttons to keep players fresh? How will Malone continue to sneak in some rest for Nikola Jokic in this next series without hemorrhaging points?

All questions that the team, and Malone, will soon have to answer. So far, they have been up to the challenge.

4. Jamal Murray was the barometer for Denver’s playoff success

In games Murray scored 20+ points this series, the Nuggets went 4-0.

In games Murray scored under 20 points this series, the Nuggets went 0-3.

Shutting down Jamal Murray and forcing Jokic to be Denver’s only scorer will probably be Portland’s best hope for winning the upcoming series. When the Spurs did it, the Nuggets had no answer. In Game 1, Murray scored 17 points on 23 shots and Jokic had just 10 points while mostly facilitating. Denver needs more than 27 points from its two top scorers, or they need another player to step up. Harris scored 20 points in Game 1 to keep it close, but in Game 3, the top scorer behind Jokic was Malik Beasley with 20. In Game 6 the top scorer behind Jokic was Murray with 16.

The best way to help Jokic is to have one or more players put up a crooked scoring number. Jokic will get his. Can Murray get his when defended by Lillard, McCollum, or Moe Harkless consistently? He should. Time will tell.

5. The bench was sort of an underwhelming mess

With Craig moving into the starting lineup, the Nuggets bench generally features four players: Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Will Barton, and Mason Plumlee. At one time or another, all of those players struggled. Barton and Plumlee struggled the most of all. Barton shot just 33 percent from the field and had 11 assists to nine turnovers, not the best showing of playmaking from an important wing player. A major factor though: Monte Morris went 0/7 from three-point range during this series. Mason Plumlee had a plus-minus of -23, and defense without Nikola Jokic on the floor was the biggest reason why.

The Blazers aren’t known for their depth, but they have some solid players at the wing spots that will tear Denver’s bench apart if they don’t match them shot for shot. Seth Curry is a stud shooter. Rodney Hood, Evan Turner, and Jake Layman rotate based on the matchup and have each given Denver problems in the past. How will the Nuggets contend with those guys? Can Mason Plumlee outplay Zach Collins, a second year player who has mostly underwhelmed, and turn the bench from a negative to a positive? The Spurs bench carried San Antonio all season. The Blazers bench was generally an anchor.

6. Shooting continues to be Denver’s achilles heel

2 for 20 in Game 7 from three-point range? You gotta be kidding me.

Somehow, Denver survived while throwing up that absurd number. The Nuggets could have hit another five of those threes and still been within their season average for three-point percentage. As I mentioned above, Monte Morris was 0 for 7 on the series from range. Murray and Jokic combined to shoot 22 of 65 from range, good for 33.8 percent. Paul Millsap was 5 of 20. Will Barton was 5 of 26. Torrey Craig saved Denver’s percentages by shooting 11 of 18 by himself.

If Craig continues to hit that frequency of looks, then more power to him. I don’t think Denver’s shooting as a team will cut it though. If they want to move past a better team than the Spurs in the Blazers, then they can’t have game long cold spells from the perimeter. If they do, they need to drive the lane and finish efficiently. Murray could do a lot of damage this series, as could Gary Harris. Both have shown up against the Blazers in previous games, and having backcourt players that match Portland’s scoring a little bit will help the rest of Denver’s players feel less pressure. If there was ever a time for Murray and Harris to prove they are a great back court tandem, this is the series to do so.

7. The Nuggets aren’t frauds. They’re growing up.

Feels pretty good to say that. So many have questioned the legitimacy of this Nuggets team. The youth and inexperience is clearly a factor. Jokic clearly needed an inhaler midway through the fourth quarter of Game 7. The role players didn’t step up when needed and were lucky to not be bounced because of it.

But it doesn’t matter. The Nuggets won a playoff series. They did it. They got that monkey off their back in their first trip to the postseason in six years. Some will ask more out of them as a 2 seed, and frankly, they have the talent to beat the Trail Blazers in this next series, especially with home court advantage.

At the beginning of the season, nobody put the Nuggets among the top 5 teams in the NBA. Right now, I’d still question that placement. One of the Houston Rockets or Golden State Warriors will be eliminated from the playoffs within a couple of weeks, and both of those teams are better than Denver. At least two of the East teams are better as well.

But none of that matters for where the Nuggets are as a franchise. Every minute of playoff competition is added experience and information on the Nuggets core and peripheral players. Jokic has clearly shown he belongs on the big stage. Murray has had inconsistencies, but he clearly will belong too as he mellows out and gets more accustomed to the playoff environment. I mean, how many players in the NBA can hit this shot in a Game 7?

The Nuggets will continue to learn from their experiences. The coaching staff and front office will convene whenever this playoff run ends and have an honest evaluation of the roster from top to bottom. They will see where the Nuggets need to improve and address those weaknesses by having players work on their game in the summer or finding players on the outside who can help.

Either way, the Nuggets, the eighth youngest playoff team of all-time, legitimized their claim as a team that could be next to the podium once the reign of the Golden State Warriors comes to an end. This playoff series shows Denver could be there sooner than we thought.