For me, the saddest thing I’ll remember about this golden era of Nuggets ball is the fact they never learned how to win on the road. It seemed every year they dug a hole and fought uphill the rest of the season. This year more than ever, it’s again a tale of two teams. There is currently no playoff team in either conference with fewer road wins than the Nuggets. They’re tied with Philadelphia at five. It’s why these Nuggets teams were regarded as more flash and flare than actual substance. It’s what separated them from being good most of the time but championship worthy only once.
Having won only 2 of their last 9 road games, the Nuggets look to improve their 5-13 mark away from the Pepsi Center against the 34-6 San Antonio Spurs. Despite losing to the Spurs in both of their previous matchups, the Nuggets have competed and overall played well against them twice. Had it not been for a controversial, but “correct” charge call on Carmelo Anthony, Denver might have turned a one point loss to a win on December 16th. On December 22nd, had the Nuggets managed to avoid getting outscored 29-14 in a fourth quarter collapse against the zone, they would have had their best win of the season. But almost doesn’t count and finishers finish in this league, which is why San Antonio won both times and shouldn’t fear the road weary Nuggets tonight.
Update: Ty Lawson will play, Birdman is still out. For San Antonio Matt Bonner and James Anderson are out.
The Spurs are an interesting team to look at as the stats somehow don’t reflect the way they’ve played and arrived at a league best 34-6 record. Richard Jefferson might the most dangerous 14.3 PER player around. Matt Bonner has to be the best clumsy white guy in the league averaging 7.8 points and 3.6 boards (he makes better than 50% on threes and shoots a lot). Why are they playing Gary Neal so much? The most efficient offensive team in the league must be running teams out of the gym trying to outscore them, right?
Not so much. With the Spurs, it’s less about what each guy is doing and more about how each guy fits. Each one of the guys I talked about earlier you don’t think about, you don’t scout, and you don’t notice when they are killing you. That’s what they want. The Spurs are no longer walking the ball up the court relying on Tim Duncan isos to beat you 76-70. The way I see it, they do one thing on offense and one thing on defense consistently and they master it down to a science. On offense, it’s not turning the ball over and ONLY taking an open shot. On, the other end – they defend without fouling. Every single player does this and has it ingrained in them, or they simply don’t play, that’s how they are winning.
San Antonio’s league-best offense isn’t a product of pace. They don’t have the athletes and operate at a medium, average pace similar to Chicago and the LA Lakers who are defensive teams. San Antonio however owns the lowest turnover ratio of any team in the NBA, and they are fourth in assist ratio, assisting on 16.2% of all possessions. It makes them deadly efficient despite not having a single player even near the top of the league in efficiency (Richard Jefferson has the highest TS% and eFG% on the team). They make so few mistakes, over a long time they just get more out of every possession than you do and it wears you out.
On the other hand, San Antonio isn’t a dominant defensive team by any stretch. They’re around the middle of the league allowing nearly 97 points a game. They don’t defend the three particularly well and opponents shoot a decent long range percentage against them. However, San Antonio by far allows the fewest free throws in the league and teams only make 74% of them too. It’s frustrating not getting easy baskets and calls when you are used to them as the Denver Nuggets are. If you wanna beat the Spurs with jump shots, they’ll oblige. What they don’t let you do is get the freebies and easy ones at the rim.
It’s mentally tough teams like that who can wear you out over a long game, a long season, and a long playoff series by being consistent. If the Nuggets rely on getting scorching hot for one quarter and blowing teams out of the building, they won’t have that kind of energy every night. The Nuggets have more than enough to keep up with San Antonio’s scorers and challenge their defense. What they haven’t been able to do is stay mentally tough and composed enough to keep chipping away at the game, ready to step up and make the crucial winning plays when they matter.
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