Preview: Denver Nuggets face San Antonio Spurs for first time this season

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@EricSpyrosNBA

The Denver Nuggets are riding a wave of momentum into the All-Star break and hope to continue their recent success when they take on the San Antonio Spurs for the first time this season Monday.

Denver (37-16) is coming off two consecutive road wins in very different fashions. With only seven players taking the court on the second night of a back-to-back Wednesday, the Nuggets defeated their division rival the Utah Jazz. On Saturday, Denver was provided a boost from the return of Paul Millsap and the addition of new players such as Keita Bates-Diop, who was acquired in a four-team trade earlier in the week.

San Antonio (22-30) finds itself in a tough position in the Western Conference, as the Spurs haven’t shown the ability to consistently play at a level high enough level to contend for a playoff spot, yet their leading players are either in their primes or quickly exiting them. The Spurs have lost four-straight games and once again find themselves unable to win on the road consistently, posting an 8-18 record away from San Antonio.

These two teams had a memorable first-round playoff experience back in April, with the Nuggets securing a Game 7 victory at Pepsi Center in the final minutes. They split the 2018-19 regular season series, highlighting how close the matchups have been over the past year.

Here are three keys to Monday’s game:

Can Murray continue to lead the way for Denver?

Jamal Murray has been nothing short of sensational for the Nuggets since returning from an ankle injury last week. In the three games following his return, the 22-year-old guard has averaged 29 points and five assists while shooting 61.5 percent from the field and a scorching 56.5 percent from beyond the arc.

Against San Antonio in the playoffs last season, Murray averaged a respectable 19 points per game on 45 percent shooting from the field. Of course, his most memorable performance came in Game 2 when Murray almost singlehandedly saved Denver’s season with 21 points in the fourth quarter to fuel a comeback victory.

With two good perimeter defenders in Derrick White and Dejounte Murray leading San Antonio’s backcourt, Murray will have a tough task ahead of him if he wants to continue his impressive scoring display. However, if Denver’s leading guard can get in a rhythm early, it could be a long night for the Spurs.

Defending the mid-range

When you think of San Antonio’s offense, you think of one area of the floor—the mid-range. Once again, the Spurs lead the league in the frequency of shots coming from that part of the floor, as a staggering 42.5 percent of their shot attempts come from the mid-range (for reference, the Golden State Warriors are second with 37.5 percent of their shots coming from the mid-range).

Of course, if something works, you don’t fix it, as the Spurs also top the league in field-goal percentage from the mid-range. That is a key reason they are able to have an above-average offense despite being dead last in frequency of shots attempted at the rim and 29th in frequency of shots coming from beyond the arc.

Luckily for the Nuggets, they have done a good job defending the mid-range this season, ranking sixth in opponent field-goal percentage from that part of the floor. If Denver can make San Antonio comfortable from its favorite area of the court, it will go a long way in slowing down the Spurs’ offense.

Fire away from deep and attack the basket

On the defensive end, it’s pretty easy to see why the Spurs struggle. San Antonio’s 24th-ranked defense struggles to create turnovers (28th in the league in opponent turnover percentage) and gives up plenty of looks from beyond the arc. Additionally, when teams get to the rim against them, the Spurs allow teams to finish at a high level.

All of this should spell out Denver’s game plan on the offensive end, which is to create good looks from deep and space the floor to consistently attack the basket. The Spurs rank 20th in their opponent’s frequency of shots coming from beyond the arc and an even worse 26th in opponent 3-point percentage this season. It doesn’t get much better for San Antonio around the rim, where opponents have finished at a 64.5 percent clip, rankings 20th in the league.

Although Denver doesn’t rely on these areas of the floor to fuel their offense (ranking 19th in frequency of shots coming at the rim and 27th in shots coming from downtown), the Spurs provide the perfect opponent to work on getting shots from these parts of the floor. The percentages show that if the Nuggets work to get these shots, they will likely find plenty of success on the offensive end.

Projected starters: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Torrey Craig, Jerami Grant, Nikola Jokić

Monday’s game will tip at 7 p.m. MT and will air on Altitude TV (Radio: 92.5FM).

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