Late rally falls short as Nuggets lose heartbreaker to Spurs
Gregg Popovich’s conciliatory gesture said it all.
As the San Antonio coach walked off the Pepsi Center floor Thursday night, he looked over at his friend George Karl and gave an almost-apologetic shrug.
In a game in which it looked as though the team that made the last shot would win, the team that made the last shot lost.
The Nuggets celebrated what looked to be Carmelo Anthony’s second game-winning basket of the season – and 15th of his career – for a millisecond before the reality of a referee’s whistle hit like an icy wind.
On a bang-bang play that could have been interpreted as a charge, block or no-call, Anthony drove past Richard Jefferson and was called for an offensive foul when Manu Ginobili stepped into his path, enabling the Spurs to escape with a 113-112 victory.
“It’s a play that I think goes either way a lot,” Karl said. “But it seems like referees like to hit us with the tough call. Melo made a great play. It was close. I’ve seen it called both ways.”
Karl and his coaching staff watched the replay several times in the moments after the game. Anthony, with his right thumb throbbing and his right knee wrapped in ice, had no such interest.
“I don’t want to see it,” he said. “I just don’t want to see it."
The Spurs improved their record to an NBA-best 22-3, while the Nuggets (15-10) saw their 10-game home winning streak come to an end.
“It was tit-for-tat all the way and it was just a matter of who was going to make shots down the stretch,” Popovich said. “We feel great that we were able to get by a really good team and fight through whatever we had to fight through. They did the same. We just happened to win it at the end.”
Regardless of your rooting interest, it was certainly an entertaining game.
The Nuggets led by as many as 12 points in the first half, while the Spurs rallied to take a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter.
Behind Anthony and his 10 points in the game's final 5:32, Denver made a closing push and pulled within a point on Al Harrington’s free throw with 25.1 seconds left. After Ginobili hit a pair of free throws at the other end, the Nuggets regained the lead when Anthony drove for a dunk, stole the ensuing in-bounds pass and made an easy layup with 7.1 seconds to go.
“We had moments in the third and fourth quarters that we could’ve turned off our intensity and we turned it up,” Karl said. “I thought we played a big-time intensity game against a team that’s difficult to beat.”
Ginobili, who scored 11 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter, made a bank shot in the lane to give the Spurs the lead again with 4.2 seconds left, setting up one final play for the Nuggets.
Given his history of clutch shots, Anthony was the go-to guy for Denver. He hit a 22-foot jumper to beat Chicago on Nov. 26, but opted to drive to the hoop when Jefferson crowded him near the top of the key.
Ginobili, guarding Arron Afflalo on the weak side, anticipated Anthony’s aggressive move and scrambled to get his feet above the block/charge circle just as Anthony was going up for the shot.
“Obviously what I think and what (the officials) called is two different things,” Anthony said. “I thought I made a great play. I took advantage of how Rich was guarding. I attacked. I don’t think we could’ve got a better look at it than that.”
Lost in the frenetic finish was Anthony’s 31-point performance and a balanced Denver offense that featured six players in double-figures.
Also overshadowed was J.R. Smith’s highlight-reel, two-handed dunk over San Antonio rookie Gary Neal.
With 6.4 seconds left in the first quarter, Smith dribbled the length of the floor, drove hard to the middle of the key and took flight Neal, who was called for a blocking foul.
The Nuggets could've used that same call at the end of the game, but Karl hopes his team doesn’t dwell on what might have been.
“We can’t let it demoralize us and forget about Minnesota on Saturday,” Karl said.
After facing the struggling Timberwolves (6-20), the Nuggets will travel to San Antonio to play the Spurs again next Wednesday. It’s possible that injured forwards Chris Andersen (broken bone in lower back) and Kenyon Martin (left knee surgery) could be available for the rematch.
"We’ve got to beat good people and we’ve got to play better and improve and get healthier," Karl said. "There’s a lot of things that I think can bring this team together."