Denver Nuggets Game Preview: Series Clincher in San Antonio?

by Alex Labidou
Nuggets.com Staff Writer
@LabidouA

It’s been 10 long years since the Denver Nuggets have reached the Western Conference semifinals, a streak that could come to an end on Thursday night.

Denver travels to San Antonio to face the Spurs at AT&T Center in Game 6 of the first round, a series where it has a 3-2 advantage. Michael Malone’s side has impressively rallied since dropping two of the first three games of the series. The maturation of the young Nuggets, the eighth youngest team in NBA playoff history, has come on both sides of the floor. Over the past two games of the first round, Denver has the best three-point percentage in the NBA and is second in points allowed (96.5).

As strong as Denver has looked in Games 4 and 5, it has to be wary of a potential letdown. The team just snapped a seven-year winless streak at the AT&T Center, a hostile environment for any visiting team. Nikola Jokić said it best after Game 5, this will be “the toughest game of our life" for the Nuggets.

Here are the keys to the game:

Keep excelling from downtown

Denver’s turnaround from three-point land is nothing short of dramatic. The team opened its first two games of the first round as the fourth-west shooting team from downtown at 30.8. In the three games since that point, Denver has been lights out. In fact, the Nuggets are currently second in the NBA playoffs in hitting threes at 41.4 percent. Only the Warriors are better at 41.9 percent. During the regular season, the Nuggets were 17th in the NBA as they hit 35.1 percent of their attempts.

Alternatively, Denver has also continued its impressive 3-point defense as well. The Spurs were the top three-point shooting percentage team (39.2 percent) in the regular season, but they’ve fallen to ninth in playoffs (33.1). Prior to Game 5, Malone discussed the challenges between defending the paint or downtown.

“It’s a fine line,” he said. “They’re hurting us in the paint, 51 paint points per game…But you almost don’t want to overreact to that because you don’t want to open up the three-point line.”

He added, “We’ve got to be able to do both, be a multiple-effort team, but give our guys credit, they’ve locked into the game plan, the personnel, and done a really good job of taking their shooters off the three-point line.”

The Murray-Jokić duo

The chemistry between Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić was on full display on Tuesday night’s win against San Antonio. It’s almost as both men are in an interchangeable Batman and Robin situation. Both take turns in leading and facilitating in key spots for Denver. Here is a perfect example of how the pair were finding each other in Game 5.

On Tuesday, Jokić would finish the game with 16 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists while Jamal Murray had 23 points, seven assists and four rebounds. A big reason why Denver has increased their offensive efficiency has been the improvement from Murray in playmaking. After having just six assists in the first three games of the series, he’s had 13 in the last two games. With both franchise stars spreading the ball around, it’s not a surprise Denver has averaged 112.5 points per game in the past two games. In the opening three games, the team was averaging 106 points per game.

Bench dominance:

The Nuggets reserves outscored the Spurs’ second unit 39-28 in Game 5, and overall, it’s a significant factor as to why the team currently holds a 3-2 lead in the first-round series.

“I just know that their bench has outplayed our bench pretty consistently,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich acknowledged in the Game 5 pregame press conference. “It’s something we’ve counted on all year and we haven’t really had that, so I’m hoping that we’ll get some better play off the bench.”

In the first round series between the two teams, Denver’s bench is averaging 34 points a game, while San Antonio’s reserves are scoring 24.5 points a game. Malik Beasley has been an impact player off the bench for Denver and Will Barton’s recent move to the group has only enhanced the second unit offensively.

If the Nuggets are to close out the series in San Antonio, they’ll need another big night from their subs.

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