About Last Night

About Last Night: Plot thickens as Nuggets pull into tie with Warriors

Thought to be a foregone conclusion when the season started, first place in the Western Conference is up for grabs with only three weeks remaining

Not that the importance of a game against the Golden State Warriors really needs much description, but San Antonio Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan nonetheless obliged following his team’s 111-105 triumph over the two-time defending champion.

“They’re the No. 1 team in our conference,” DeRozan said, “and we’re playing well, too.”

Not exactly.

The bit about the Spurs playing well? No question. Monday’s victory marked their ninth straight, easily the best stretch in what had been a decidedly un-Spurs-y season marked by mediocre defense and inconsistency. (More on that in a bit.)

But the Warriors as No. 1 in the West? Not anymore, with their loss and the Denver Nuggets’ 114-105 victory over the Boston Celtics deadlocking them atop the standings at 47-22.

OK, so the Warriors are technically still in first place thanks to their 2-1 series lead over the Nuggets. (The two teams play one final time in Denver on April 2.)

That it’s even that close this late in the season feels substantial given Golden State’s awesome firepower, with the offseason addition of DeMarcus Cousins seemingly sealing a third straight title before the 2018-19 campaign tipped.

And while the playoffs are entirely different beast, the Warriors will have to run the table just to hit the 60-win mark that had been a foregone conclusion.

Or so we thought.

Full credit to the high-powered Nuggets for making it this interesting, and looking good while doing it. Riding another superlative performance from All-Star center Nikola Jokic (21 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists), they slugged the Celtics with a 16-2 run spanning the third and fourth quarters and mostly cruised from there.

The Warriors, meanwhile, made multiple runs in San Antonio but, with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant shooting a combined 10 for 31 on 3-pointers, could never get completely over the hump. (It would have been even worse had Curry not banked in a 61-footer to end the first quarter, the fourth 50-plus foot shot of his career.)

Much of that had to do with a Spurs team that, after struggling for most of the season, has suddenly rediscovered the defensive prowess that has been a hallmark of their success under coach Gregg Popovich.

Spurs defense, first 62 games
111.7 points allowed per 100 possessions, 23rd in NBA
Spurs defense, 9-game winning streak
103.1 points allowed per 100 possessions, 2nd

One possession in particular stood out against the Warriors, as the Spurs rotated around like banshees while defending a late four-point lead.

That led to the ideal outcome against a team featuring three of the NBA’s best marksmen: An open 3 for 26-percent shooter Draymond Green, which he predictably missed, followed by a made 3 by Davis Bertans that put the Spurs up by seven with less than two minutes left.

Combined with Oklahoma City’s swoon (9 losses in 13 games), the Spurs suddenly find themselves just 1.5 games behind the Portland Trail Blazers for fourth in the West. That means, after flirting with actually missing the playoffs for the first time in two decades, they’re in range of holding home-court advantage in the first round.

With the third-place Rockets also rounding into form with 11 victories in their past 12, the West is suddenly looking a lot more competitive than it had been even a few weeks ago.

That might not ultimately deter the Warriors, who are still massive favorites in Vegas to win it all.

But if the Nuggets, or the Spurs, or the Rockets have their say, Green’s recent declaration to The Athletic that another championship is “just that simple” might not actually be.

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