When you think of the Spurs, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Nuggets fans might be tempted to say flopping or a number of other four-letter words first, but when you really examine it beyond that I think of defense and championship team basketball. One of the untold stories of the year is the transformation of the San Antonio Spurs that’s seen them jump out to the league’s best record by far. They are now doing it with unselfish and efficient execution on offense first. Sound familiar? Tonight’s game in Denver actually featured the two best offensive teams in basketball. I know the Spurs were without Tim Duncan, but with the post-trade Nuggets undergoing their own transformation we may no longer be seeing San Antonio as the familiar team-oriented kryptonite to Denver’s attack. Nuggets fans have never been close to having a team in the Spurs’ championship mold and tonight’s game was another exciting reminder that big changes are coming and already here.
A strange realization dawned on me watching the Spurs open the game with flawless offensive execution. These teams are not radically different as we’ve been accustomed to over the years. The Nuggets no longer play totally bad defense – they rotate, communicate and help each other fairly well. The Spurs offense is just a well-oiled machine that chews up defenses and spits out efficiency. They have role players coming at you from all directions doing what they do best. They have explosive guys who can make plays out of nothing and carry the team for a stretch. They are just too unselfish and dangerous to a point where little mistakes wear you down and begin to snowball. I do not mean to sound conceited but it reminds me so much of the balanced attack we’ve seen out of the post-trade Nuggets.
The Spurs still own a top ten defense they have always been able to fall back on despite getting away from it at times. Combined with their seamless offensive flow the Spurs’ defense didn’t seem to make any excuses for Tim Duncan being out. Their rebounding and interior defense to start the game put them firmly in control and a string of unconscious three point shooting pushed that advantage to double digits quick. As we have seen the great teams in the league do, San Antonio’s defense put enormous pressure on Nene and Ty Lawson and it was effective in completely throwing the Nuggets offense off early.
What really hurt the Nuggets to start the game was the Spurs dominating the glass even without Tim Duncan. For much of the first half the Nuggets were held without an offensive rebound. Meanwhile, Denver resorted to too much one-on-one offense while the Spurs shooters caught fire. Lawson was looking to be aggressive driving the ball but struggled to balance that with sound decision making as he passed up multiple open shots despite being given plenty of room. San Antonio kept forcing the ball into Kenyon Martin’s hands, one of Denver’s least consistent options in terms of creating shots. I have to admit, for a while it looked like the old Nuggets and I felt this game could be headed towards a disheartening blowout.
But then something happened, and just as we saw poor Nuggets offense in Orlando and Miami they managed to scrap and claw their way back with hustle and energetic defense. Ray Felton, JR Smith, and Al Harrington provided an immediate spark to a stagnant offensive start by the starters. I mentioned in a previous game preview of San Antonio that the keys to their success are finding open shots and defending without fouling. The Nuggets stayed in the game by getting to the line and forcing the Spurs to foul despite the fact no Nugget could make a shot. Although Spurs like Gary Neal and Matt Bonner were finding open threes against Denver’s defense, it took four and five passes to find those shots late in the clock and the Spurs just did not miss. It seemed even when Denver contesting and forcing difficult outside shots the Spurs converted anyways. It was easy to get discouraged, but behind a strong effort from one of the deepest teams in the league the Nuggets kept fighting and that perseverance ended up paying off big time.
Just as the Spurs thought they might be getting away with not having Duncan, the Nuggets’ depth had something to say about that. JR Smith, who loves to play against San Antonio, had one of his most under-control and effective low-minute performances. He was aggressive from the start and despite deserving more playing time than he got, he maximized his effect in those 20 minutes. I mentioned that the joke of a game versus the Raptors was a solid confidence booster for Al Harrington who got to show off his game against a team who could not play defense. After what seems like months of struggling badly Al Harrington came alive and led all scorers with 27 points on 12 shots. As much as I’ve ripped Harrington’s game and at times his effort, this marks the second time Al has stepped up with a big time performance while showing an ability to carry the team offensively. After nearly falling out of the rotation Harrington has worked hard and not complained about his diminishing role. His teammates looked so genuinely happy to see his attitude pay off with results and I am glad Harrington found his game tonight despite the fact he still drives me stark-raving mad at times.
I really can’t say enough about the bench effort tonight. Even despite a dud from Chris Andersen it led to a second half turnaround in which Denver’s defense came alive and fueled an offensive resurgence that saw the Nuggets outscore the Spurs in every quarter after the first. Raymond Felton’s defense on Tony Parker contributed to a solid team effort which held San Antonio to 43 second half points after giving up 69 in the first. Wilson Chandler, who struggled with his shot recorded six blocks and hit the eventual game winning shot in the final minute. Ty Lawson just exploded with energy grabbing some incredible offensive rebounds and big time plays in key moments.
Aside from Al Harrington’s breakout performance the Nuggets didn’t have a spectacular individual night out of anyone else. Once again we are seeing this team dispel the notion that a successful offense is structured around one or two singular focal points. Instead perhaps the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and that is such a refreshing and surprising revelation no matter how many times we see it repeated.
If there is something to complain about, it has to be the free throw shooting and performance of Nene under pressure. Denver missed 14 free throws going 64% from the line saved only by their 39 total attempts. It is tough to win like that especially against a great team like the Spurs and I expect Denver to return to much better performances going forward. I mentioned in a previous recap that as teams figure the Nuggets out they will be giving Nene all he can handle in terms of physical abuse and pressure. Nene was denied the ball in good position all night and he spearheaded the awful performance at the line going 4 for 8 himself. Nene airballed a free throw and nearly airballed two more in crunch time and clearly got rattled in the pivotal moments of the game. I do not want to take away from his decent overall performance but Nene is mentally holding himself back from being the best player on this team by shying away from pressure instead of embracing it. Unlike Lawson who struggles with execution and decision making Nene seems to lack confidence in clutch moments and that is something that needs to improve despite Denver’s depth being a luxury that somewhat allows them to afford it.
All things considered it was a spectacular win, one this team was finally able to get in a marquee matchup against an elite opponent. What makes it sweeter is the fact Denver did not play their best on either end of the floor, they simply willed themselves to victory despite many things going wrong that shouldn’t have. I know they were without Tim Duncan, but the Spurs established a big advantage despite that. I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to see their offense get rolling and take control before cooling off and losing their grip in crunch time due to superior fourth quarter hustle from the Nuggets. After all, San Antonio should be familiar with it as they’ve beaten the Nuggets three times before in similar fashion.
Pace Factor: 94.3 – Surprised, this game was wildly up and down ending up near San Antonio’s average pace of 94.8, yet they lose.
Offensive Efficiency: 122.0 – San Antonio holds opponents to an average of 101.7, just a solid performance all around.
Defensive Efficiency: 118.8 – Spurs are the second best offense in the league, and Denver played D when it mattered.
Additional Game 72 Nuggets