2010-11 Game 72: Denver Nuggets 115 San Antonio Spurs 112

Box Score | Highlights

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.

Advanced Stats

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

  • Denver started the game switching on every screen which we know and loathe here at Roundball Mining Company. The Spurs exploited this early and Denver was forced to adjust multiple times. I thought the Nuggets were at their best trapping the high ball screens as it forces Parker and Ginobili to work with less space and give up the ball early. You may give up an open look this way but more than likely it forces another player to create on their own rather than getting wide open catch and shoots from the Spurs’ best playmakers. I do not like the hard switching against the Spurs and over the course of a long series San Antonio knows how to beat it as evidenced by their 118.8 Offensive Rating and bevy of points early. Despite seeing some success with it I truly feel Denver has the personnel to avoid it and I would argue they can play better defense by not doing it.
  • Ginobili shot an airball from three on the Spurs final possession with 6 seconds left but he actually had a decent look to take the lead in the final minutes before that. Denver should have sealed the deal at the free throw line but Felton made one of two and Ginobili was given the second chance to tie after San Antonio burned their last two timeouts to advance the ball. I personally am a fan of fouling up three at the end of the game even despite the bad free throw shooting but Denver’s strategy paid off this time as Ginobili missed all of his shots in the fourth quarter.
  • I give a lot of credit to Al Harrington and while I agree with rewarding his effort with minutes down the stretch, Harrington was clearly worn out physically by the end of the game and struggled just laboring up and down each end of the court. Nene had a poor night and was not in at the end but I felt that does little for his confidence and Harrington shouldn’t be forced into minutes he doesn’t have the conditioning for. Thankfully, it didn’t cost the Nuggets but the Spurs missed some decent look down the stretch and just as Karl rewarded the hot hand on offense in the future I’d like to see him reward the defensive role players similarly.
  • Gallinari may look clumsy doing it, but I love the way he attacks the rim and almost always draws contact on big and small defenders alike. It was just awesome seeing Ginobili get a taste of his own medicine as Gallo attacked him off the dribble for two early fouls in which Ginobili did not initiate the contact. Manu has been doing that for years by driving uncontrollably towards the rim and crashing into defenders for easy trips to the line and he definitely doesn’t have any right to complain about finding himself on the other end of it for a change.
  • Every starter finished with a negative plus/minus rating and Denver’s top three scorers all came off the bench. It’s wild to win a game like that especially against a quality team and as Jeremy wrote earlier this team has been turning conventional wisdom upside down since the trade. The bench combined to make 11 out of 13 threes and that will likely not happen again but it goes to show how the distinction between starter and sub in Denver is a total misnomer. For instance Felton has already led the team in minutes in multiple times off the bench and he posted a solid 18 and 8 in 33 minutes. That is more playing time than all starters except Chandler and it seems there’s going to be starters minutes available for at least one hot hand off the bench every game.

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Charlie Yao

Managing Editor at Roundball Mining Company and writer since 2010. Unhealthily obsessed with Nuggets basketball since 2002. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram at the links on the left.
  • jmac

    Great write-up. Hustle matters. They played tougher than SA and tonight it was enough. Best part – Pop’s pissed off post game interview explaining that the nuggets played better, hard d the whole game, not just the last play. i feel his pain. i don’t think enough people understand what the nuggets are doing in games like this.

  • Ernie

    I thought the officiating was awful. San Antonio was getting every bump and calls after the fact for about 3 quarters. Then in the 2nd half it seemed to reverse (I don’t know if Karl influenced it) and the Nugs benefitted from those same shaky calls. Distracting to what was a great effort by both teams and great execution.

    I think getting back Afflalo will help not only defense, but also in having either Chandler or Gallo on the floor most of the time in their natural positions. They seem to be very effective 3’s, both on defense and spacing the floor and willing to cut to the basket. But there is a defensive liability when they are out of position playing a 4 or 2. Seemed to be an issue at the beginning of both halves.

    • Tim

      I agree about the officiating. While I am willing to admit that officiating in the NBA is subjective at best, it would be nice to see consistency on both ends of the floor in any given game, which we did not see for much of for at least the first half of the game. Karl did get in one of the refs’ (#26, I think) faces pretty intensely after a pretty bad call with about 7 or 8 minutes left in the 3rd and the calls seemed to balance out after that.

    • Kalen

      I’ve noticed that trend in the NBA for a while now. Instead of fouls just being called fairly, when necessary, it seems one team gets all the calls in one half, then the other team gets all the calls in the other half. It’s really weird, and makes you wonder.

  • ParkHillNative

    Terrific write-up of a nutty game. Summation of Harrington is spot-on. The Nugs can’t count on that kind of night from him very often, but it sure helps if he can do that every once in a great while.

  • Nordmoose

    Big fan of the “Roundball Mining Co.”…thanks for it.

    I only caught 1/2 a quarter on the teevee last night; was finally able to find a decent stream to listen to Koz on-line…..it’s all really my first chance to see these “Newgets”.
    Boulder is the place of my birth though I haven’t lived there for years. Denver is the home of my favourite sports teams; the Nuggets have always been dear to my heart, speaking as a bball player in a bball family.
    I am DIGGING this team.
    I loved Ty in college …. I love Coach Karl (would have loved to play under a coach like him), I’d love to see Nene blossom (more),…
    Great write-up here, mate.
    I’m proud to have been a fan of this team since the ’70s. I am happy to be a fan of this team today.
    Seriously,….what are the odds they can carry this play into next year?
    Is there something (else) that Karl would love to have a part of this team?
    Any RBMC patches or pins? hehe

    • Aussie Nugs Fan

      Yeah sometimes I can’t actually watch the games here either. Nordmoose would you be able to please send me the link to Koz online? I can never even find a radio stream anymore and for some reason NBA audio league pass never works over here anymore.

      • nordmoose

        Hey Aussie!

        The best odds I’ve found for getting to listen/stream is on the espn.com/nba site. Go to that main page, then click on “scores” at the top of the page. When the game is on, there *might* be a “listen” link. Click on that. You’ll see a pop-up with a list of games,…click on “Denver”.
        That’s the best and most consistent I’ve been able to find. However, I’ve had hit-miss luck with it over-all. Consequence of being relatively rural in Alaska, perhaps.
        GO NUGGETS!

        • Aussie Nugs Fan

          Thanks a lot. I’ll look out for that.

  • Chris

    Enough about Tim duncan being out. If the Spurs are so easy to beat when missing Tim Duncan, why were they 7-1 without him coming in?
    Moreover, it’s not like the Nuggets weren’t missing any starters themselves. No, I am not saying that AAA’s body of work is comparable to Mr. Duncan’s, but in terms of what they contribute THIS YEAR, I’d say they are quite comparable:
    TD averages 13.3 ppg / AAA: 12.4
    TD shoots 49.2% on the year / AAA: 49.6%
    TD averages 2.7 apg / AAA: 2.4
    Sure, Duncan gives you the rebounding, but AAA is a threat from 3 and a machine from the stripe. You can’t say either about Duncan. I know this is not a clean comparison, since they play different positions, but I think the evidence is clear that an “Afflalo-less” Nuggets team is nearly as short-handed as a “Duncan-less” Spurs team. But I didn’t see any headlines say, “short-handed Nuggets Defeat Spurs.”

    • Jason

      Did you really just compare Tim Duncan to Afflalo? HA HA

  • Kalen

    What the beginning of the game told me was that the Spurs were taking us incredibly serious, while we were just nervous.

    Hastings made a great point about Al the other day. He said Al can’t just post up beyond the 3-point line and wait for shots because it eliminates his entire game. I think he couldn’t have been more right. Al is a talented ball player, and he shouldn’t just constrain his game to being a spot-up shooter, because that’s not who he is. Al can attack off the dribble as well as anyone on our team, and he’s got a well-rounded game overall. It was great seeing him do so well, and I agree that his teammates seemed to be over-enthused too.

    The thing I’ll say about Nene that’s honorable, is that he’s leading the league in field goal percentage for a reason. He just doesn’t take bad shots. I too would love for Nene to be more assertive, but at least he’s not jacking up Meloesque stuff. All of his attempts are always well calculated.

    Overall, best win of the season. Duncan would have made a difference, but it doesn’t matter, we still won. I thought it was a “feel good” thing to see Karl acknowledge Al’s great game by leaving him in during crunch time, but I’m not sure it gave us the best chance to win as Al was pretty gassed by that point in time. I really can’t overstate how big this win was. We now have the opportunity to do some damage within the next week and winning all of these games is crucial. Keep it rollin boys!