Spurs fall to Nuggets in game 7 – analysis

The Nuggets defeated the San Antonio Spurs in game 7 90-86

The Denver nuggets beat the San Antonio Spurs 90-86 Saturday night. With the victory, the Nuggets advance to the second round to face the Portland Trail Blazers. With the loss, San Antonio’s off-season of questions begins.

Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said in a courtside interview that he doesn’t like to add in new strategic wrinkles in game 7s, preferring to talk his players up and let them get in a rhythm without overthinking things. The Nuggets, meanwhile, made some significant strategic changes in game 7. In game 6 they had committed to their normal defensive principles – trying to deny the high-efficiency shots and encouraging mid-range jumpers.

But the Spurs, stacked with mid-range specialists, were equipped to handle that. They shot 20 of 29 from mid-range in game 6, led largely by DeMar DeRozan, who was taking 29% of his shots in the series from 10-16 feet going into game 7. His previous playoff high on those shots was 41% shooting – he was shooting 54% after 6 games.

Maybe allowing those mid-rangers is still the best way to go in theory, but you can’t afford to play the statistical long-game in a game 7. So Nuggets head coach Mike Malone had the Nuggets double-team LaMarcus Aldridge every time he got the ball in the mid-range. That forced him to keep kicking it out, and the Nuggets rotated and closed out aggressively to prevent the Spurs from taking advantage of the 4-on-3 doubling creates. They also made the adjustment to start forcing the Spurs to drive with their off-hands. All of this combined had the effect of making San Antonio look incredibly uncomfortable on offense.

The Spurs started the game playing really ugly basketball (and not in the admirable, nostalgic way). Aldridge was rushing into off-the-dribble, contested mid-range jumpers – a difficult look for anyone, and very much not his shot. DeRozan forced up a contested floater while he was practically horizontal. Derrick White took a gross 3 off-the-dribble with his defender draped all over him. And so on and so on. They opened the game shooting 1 of 12.

All those misses allowed Denver to constantly be in transition or semi-transition, and they repeatedly got good looks before the Spurs could set their defense. It was surprising they only had 17 points with three minutes left in the first, though it was hard to fault them when San Antonio only had 4. That was a very much a theme of the night. Both teams finished shooting under 40%, and the in-game announcers continuously stated that it felt like the Spurs should be down 20 or 25 points.

Rudy Gay broke the ice in the first quarter, getting four straight drives to the rim culminating in three buckets and 3 free throw attempts (and one rolled ankle – it looked pretty painful, but he kept playing). DeRozan eventually joined the party. He couldn’t buy a mid-range jumper, so he started burying his head driving to the rim, and showed nice touch on some tough shots down there.

Nikola Jokic showed why he is a star. The Spurs continued their strategy of single coverage on him – Popovich said early in the series that you’d rather that then double and invite Jokic to carve you up with his elite passing. But he looked downright unstoppable in the second quarter. His strength allowed him to repeatedly back Aldridge down, and he showed off an arsenal of post moves that looked surprisingly-polished to viewers who know him as more of a modern big.

Denver was up 47 to 34 at halftime. Both teams were a combined 2 for 22 from deep. The Spurs shot only 22% from the field, and DeRozan and Aldridge shot only 3 for 18 combined. Charles Barkley called it “maybe the worst first half of basketball I’ve ever seen in the playoffs.”

Both teams started finding more things that worked in the second half. Jamal Murray kept running around Jokic at the elbow (as if for a dribble hand-off) and cutting, and Jokic was masterful getting the ball to him. 9 of their 10 field goals in the third quarter were assisted. Meanwhile, the Spurs dedicated to driving to the rim, and repeatedly got rewarded with the whistle. Down the stretch they found a good play that worked, clearing out the left side then having Aldridge roll to the rim after a pick. Bryn Forbes caught fire, knocking down multiple huge shots from deep that kept the game close. Rudy Gay continued to be a difference-maker.

The Spurs got it to within 4 with 4 minutes left (for the first time since it was 6-2) and within 2 with a minute left, but couldn’t claw all the way back. Jamal Murray hit a clutch floater/mid-ranger with 36.8 seconds left (reminiscent of the one he missed in game 1 that might have sealed that game). With about 30 seconds left in a 4-point game, the Spurs strangely did not foul. The building was loud and they couldn’t hear Popovich calling for the foul, but it was surprising that the veterans on the floor didn’t think to do it. It was an embarrassing brain fart with the game still in reach. The Nuggets basically dribbled out the clock, and came away with a hard-fought four-point victory.

”Tonight was an odd game,” Popovich said in the post-game presser. ”I thought both teams set basketball back in the first half. I’m surprised people stayed.”

For the Spurs, an offseason filled with big questions begins. They have plenty of young talent in Bryn Forbes, Lonnie Walker, and Derrick White. All-Defense selection Dejounte Murray will be coming back from injury, and Rudy Gay is the only major piece entering free agency. They also have two first-round draft picks, which could prove highly valuable for a team that drafts as well as the Spurs.

But the Spurs’ fate is tied to DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge for now. This season was an unquestionable success for them – getting the 7th seed and pushing the 2nd seed to 7 games were not in the cards for them. But the serious doubts about how high this team can fly with those two are not disappearing. This franchise is not likely to be content with consistent first-round exits. Meanwhile, Popovich – the great constant in San Antonio’s success the last two decades – is 70-years-old now. The sense I’ve gathered from Spurs media folks is that they expect him to return next season, but that he’s not going to be around for much longer.

”I’m a head coach in the NBA,” Popovich responded last night when asked about his future. ”I don’t think about what that means in the future.”

For the Nuggets, this means their first trip to the 2nd round with this new core. They’ll have home-court advantage against Portland, but can’t be entering with much confidence. Portland closed out their series in 5 dominant games, and will still be high off the buzz from Damian Lillard’s absurd buzzer-beater to end the series. The Nuggets were lucky to advance, but playing against a disciplined Spurs team should have them playing more sharply in the next round.

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