Nuggets

First Round Preview: Nuggets vs. Spurs

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How We Got Here

The Denver Nuggets held on to the two seed down the stretch; finishing with a record of 54-28, 3.0 games behind Golden State. And as a reward for getting the two seed in the Western Conference, the Nuggets get to face the most consistently successful organization of the past two decades. The San Antonio Spurs finished the season with a 48-34 record, good for 7th in the West.

Don’t let the numbers in front of the teams fool you; this figures to be a competitive series. The two teams split their regular season meetings, each winning their two at home.  The first three match-ups were all decided by single digits until Denver won by 28 when the two teams met just two weeks ago. The game Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich famously got ejected only 63 seconds in. But a bright spot for San Antonio, rookie Lonnie Walker scored 16 points off the bench in that game after not appearing in any of the previous match-ups. Let’s not forget this hilarious interaction between coaches Mike Malone and Gregg Popovich after that April 3rd game:

 

Key Players

 

 

Nikola Jokic 

Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

The versatile 24-year old big man has been on the fringe of the MVP discussion all year long, as he’s had the best season of his young career. Jokic averaged personal-bests in points (20.1), rebounds (10.8), and assists (7.3). And he feasted on the Spurs this season, who lack a true defensive post presence. In their first meeting, Jokic scored just four points with four rebounds and ten assists. The next three games he scored 20+ and flirted with a triple-double in each. San Antonio will likely have LaMarcus Aldridge primarily defend Jokic; a match-up Nikola has shown an ability to exploit.

 

LaMarcus Aldridge 

AP Image

The veteran forward, now in his fourth season in San Antonio, led the Spurs in scoring for the second-straight season. How distant now are the concerns about LMA being a good fit for the franchise. Averaging 21.3 points and 9.2 rebounds, while shooting above 50% from the field, Aldridge is a flyer to make an All-NBA team this season.  He started 81 games for the Spurs and scored in double-figures all but five times. The Spurs will need his scoring to help keep up with the Nuggets in this series. Aldridge has shown an ability to catch fire in the playoffs before. When he’s on, his post fadeaway is as deadly as anybody’s.

 

Jamal Murray 

Isaiah J. Downing / USA TODAY Sports

In his third season out of Kentucky, Murray is having his best year as a pro. With career-best averages in points (18.2), rebounds (4.2), and assists (4.8), Murray has scored 20+ points 22 times this season; including the famous 48-point game against Boston, and a 46 point, eight assist, six rebound stat-stuffer against the Suns. His growth is a big reason why Denver has ascended to this point in the Western Conference. The Nuggets will need him to show up big in his first playoff series.

 

DeMar DeRozan 

David Zalubowski / AP

What a wild past 12 months it’s been for DeMar DeRozan. A year ago, he was entering the East playoffs as a one seed with Toronto.  After the gut-wrenching trade that sent DeRozan away from the only franchise he’d ever played for, man, did he handle that transition about as successfully as any NBA player could. DeMar has thrived with San Antonio, averaging 21.2 points and a career-best 6.2 assists per game.

Popovich is a wizard at getting players the ball in a position where they can be successful, which is a pretty broad area when it comes to DeRozan. He and second-year breakout point guard Derrick White will spearhead the Spurs’ attack from the backcourt. Denver’s top-10 league defense will try to stop them.

Mike Malone 

Aaron Ontiveroz / The Denver Post

Head Coach Mike Malone is rightfully receiving Coach of the Year buzz after leading the Nuggets to the second-best record in the highly competitive Western Conference. Malone has successfully established a winning culture in Denver; preaching player movement, sharing the ball, and making the extra pass. Not only is this smart offensive strategy in the modern NBA, but it also tailors the Nuggets offense to the skill set of their players.

 

Gregg Popovich

David Liam Kyle / Getty Images

It’s only right to mention the coach on the other side as well, given that he’s one of the greatest of all time. Popovich has done a remarkable job with this team. Between the acquisition of DeMar DeRozan and the loss of Dejounte Murray, the Spurs backcourt performed exceptionally this season. This strength is also thanks in large part to the emergence of White. San Antonio and Popovich continue finding and molding players that fit their system and their culture better than any other organization in the league.

 

Series Outlook

This series provides as much intrigue as any in this year’s first round. Although Denver holds a valuable home-court advantage and will enter the series as deserved favorites, both of these teams are fully capable of winning this series. Game 1 will be Saturday at 10:30 PM ET at the Pepsi Center in Denver.

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About Preston Dubey

Lifelong basketball fanatic and Bucks' supporter I coach basketball; but I eat, sleep, and breathe the game.

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