Guide to Denver Nuggets’ First Round Series Against the San Antonio Spurs

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

The time has finally arrived. The Denver Nuggets are preparing for playoff basketball for the first time since 2013. The Nuggets finished as the second seed in the Western Conference and will face the seventh-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round.

Although Denver was expected to make the playoffs, the Nuggets exceeded expectations by winning 54 games and finishing with the second-best record in the conference. Given that the Nuggets are led by several players under the age of 25, the team’s resilience throughout the regular season was impressive, as the Nuggets finished 12-1 on the second night of back-to-backs. Denver was led by All-Star Nikola Jokić, who averaged 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. Jokić was one of seven players that averaged over 10 points per game, highlighting Denver’s strong depth.

An overview of the Spurs

The Spurs came into the 2018-19 regular season with several questions after trading away Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to the Toronto Raptors in the offseason. Led by LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio used an effective offense to finish with 48 wins. These Spurs are not the Spurs of old, as it is their sixth-ranked offense that drives their success. This will be San Antonio’s 22nd-straight appearance in the playoffs. San Antonio relies on a mix of veterans and young players, with mainstays such as Marco Belinelli, Patty Mills and Rudy Gay filling in the rotation alongside newcomers such as Derrick White and Bryn Forbes.

San Antonio is an interesting team on both sides of the ball. Their offensive structure is very unusual to see in today’s NBA, as they rank dead-last in both 3-pointers attempted per game and shots attempted at the rim. Conversely, they own the mid-range, attempting the most shots in that area.

What the Spurs lack in attempts they more than make up for in accuracy. San Antonio finished fifth in field-goal percentage around the rim, second in field-goal percentage from mid-range, and knocked down 40.1 percent of their 3-pointers, which was best in the league. Simply put, the Spurs know what they are good at and don’t overextend themselves to try and keep pace with the typical, modern NBA offense.

Regular season series: 2-2

Denver and San Antonio split the four regular season matchups, with the home team winning each game. As a result of the various injuries the Nuggets dealt with during the regular season, the two teams didn’t match up at full strength until the last two games of the series. Both Will Barton and Paul Millsap missed the first two games of the series.

Three of the four games in the series came down to the wire. The Spurs won the first game in late December by eight points, while Denver responded with a three-point victory two nights later. The Nuggets would drop a close game in early March, when a Jamal Murray-led comeback attempt fell short in the final seconds. Denver would wrap up the season series with a commanding 113-85 victory at Pepsi Center on April 3rd.

Key matchups

1) Nikola Jokić vs. Spurs’ frontcourt

Although Denver enjoyed some success against the Spurs this season, Jokić had an unusual series against San Antonio. While Jokić averaged 8.5 assists per game against the Spurs, he also averaged just 16.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. Furthermore, the 24-year-old big man only attempted 10.8 shots per game in the season series. The Spurs are known to mix up their defensive coverages within a single game, as they will occasionally move to a zone defense to throw off opponents.

The key for Jokić will be to attack San Antonio’s 20th-ranked defense early, thus opening up other opportunities for shooters such as Murray, Harris and Barton. Jokić will likely be guarded by several different big men on the Spurs, but his ability to score in the post, knock down 3-pointers and find open teammates should allow him to have success in the series.

2) Paul Millsap vs. LaMarcus Aldridge

This battle between the two starting power forwards may end up deciding the series. Limiting Aldridge’s effectiveness will be key for the Nuggets, as the 33-year-old is the driving force of San Antonio’s offense. Millsap will often be tasked with slowing down Aldridge in the mid-range. This matchup is a key example as to why many view Millsap as a key piece to Denver’s playoff puzzle, as Millsap provides plenty of playoff experience and strong defense in the post to combat a player such as Aldridge.

"(Paul) has just been so steady on both ends,” Mason Plumlee said. “He's made plays on defense and it just seems like he's always causing problems. Whether it's deflections, taking charges, rebounding at a high level. He's playing great and has really taken us to a new level.”

Aldridge had his fair share of success in the regular season against Denver, posting 22.3 points per game on 55.7 percent shooting from the field. San Antonio was 37-10 when Aldridge scored at least 20 points, including 2-1 against the Nuggets. However, as mentioned earlier, Millsap only played in the last two games between the two teams. In those two games, Aldridge scored 19 points per game and had five turnovers. Millsap not only provides strong one-on-one defense against Aldridge, but he has a knack for playing the passing lanes and generating steals.

On the offensive end, Millsap will need to force Aldridge to guard him on the perimeter and expend consistent effort. Millsap only averaged four points per game on 25 percent shooting from the field against San Antonio this season. Denver finished 37-10 this season when Millsap scored at least 10 points. If the four-time All-Star can knock down 3-pointers at a consistent rate and be active on the boards, Denver’s offense will benefit greatly from the veteran’s presence.

3) Jamal Murray vs. Derrick White

If you aren’t all that familiar with White’s NBA career, you aren’t alone. White, who spent nearly all of his rookie season in the G League, had a breakout season as a strong defensive player at the guard position. White is a legitimate All-Defensive Team candidate that ranked second on the Spurs in net rating at plus-4.3 points per 100 possessions. Furthermore, San Antonio’s defense was 4.1 points per 100 possessions better when White was on the floor this season.

Murray had an up-and-down season series against San Antonio. There were definitely some highs, such as his fourth-quarter barrage from downtown that nearly propelled Denver to a tough road win in early March. However, there were also some lows, including a 4-of-19 shooting night in the first game of the season series.

Although White doesn’t have the sterling reputation that other defensive-minded guards do, he will provide a tough test for Murray, who will be experiencing playoff basketball for the first time. If Murray can repeat his regular season performance against San Antonio (19.8 points, 6 assists per game, 41.4 percent from three) in the playoffs, that will do wonders for Denver’s offense.

Key storylines

1) Homecourt advantage

If there were ever a series to emphasize the importance of homecourt advantage, this could very well be the shining example. As mentioned earlier, the home team won each of the four games in the regular season series. Furthermore, San Antonio struggled mightily on the road, going 16-25 away from home this season. Denver was a solid 20-21 away from Pepsi Center, but hasn’t won a game in San Antonio since 2012. If either team is able to steal a game away from home, it could very well decide the series.

"Yea we have one of the best home records,” Murray said (Denver finished with the best home record in the league at 34-7). “We have to come out and be ready to play. The fans are going to be here. They've always been great."

2) How much does playoff experience matter?

As expected, the Spurs come into the matchup with more playoff experience on their roster and coaching staff. Both DeRozan and Aldridge have had their fair share of playoff-tested moments, while Popovich owns a 167-110 playoff record and has won five NBA championships. Additionally, every player in San Antonio’s rotation has experience playoff basketball.

Meanwhile, few players on the Nuggets’ roster have experienced playoff basketball, with Millsap, Plumlee and Barton being the only players in the team’s rotation that have been tested in the postseason. While Michael Malone has experienced playoff games as an assistant coach, this will be the first time that the spotlight will be on him as he looks to guide Denver to its first playoff series victory since 2009.

This series will be a good indication of how important it truly is to have playoff experience.

3) Take advantage of San Antonio’s weaknesses and don’t beat yourself

As mentioned earlier, San Antonio struggles on the defensive end of the floor. One key advantage that Denver can attack is the two Spurs All-Stars. When Aldridge and DeRozan were on the court together this season, the Spurs had a defensive rating of 109.7, which would have ranked 17th in the league. However, when the two were both off the court, their defensive rating dropped to just 102.5, which would have ranked first in the league this season. Putting DeRozan and Aldridge in constant pick-and-roll actions will benefit Denver’s offense and will force the two All-Stars to expend more effort on defense, thus potentially having a secondary benefit on their offensive games.

The Nuggets must focus on generating quality shots each offensive possession. While the Spurs do a good job of limiting shots at the rim (they rank third in frequency of opponent shots at the rim), they rank 25th in frequency of opponent shots from mid-range, which is where Denver can attack. Additionally, San Antonio is 29th in opponent field-goal percentage from the mid-range (43.2), according to Cleaning the Glass. Denver is a strong mid-range shooting team, having finished sixth in the league in field-goal percentage from that area of the floor.

Another key area that could very well decide the series is the turnover battle. The Spurs finished with the lowest turnover percentage in the league, highlighting how well they execute and force defenses to beat them. The Nuggets finished 13th in turnover percentage, which, while above-average, is an area that caused some issues for Denver during the regular season. Luckily for the Nuggets, the Spurs finished 28th in opponent turnover percentage, meaning they struggled to create turnovers on defense. If Denver can take care of the ball, they should like their chances to execute offensively.

Game one between the Nuggets and Spurs will tip at 8:30 p.m. MT on Saturday, April 13.

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