It’s finally over. The long, grueling 82 game NBA regular season has ended, and now the fun part starts. On April 13th, the playoffs begin with intriguing matchups all across the board. In the East, you have the Philadelphia 76ers going up against the surprising Brooklyn Nets. You also have the underwhelming Boston Celtics versus the gritty Indiana Pacers.
But right now, let’s focus on a matchup in the West: the Denver Nuggets versus the San Antonio Spurs. On paper, this 2-7 series may look like a cakewalk for the Nuggets, as it usually is for 2-7 series’. However, the experienced Spurs also could prove to be quite the thorn in the Nuggets side, so let’s take a deeper look at these two teams.
Denver Nuggets vs San Antonio Spurs Series Preview
Taking this position by position, it looks like Denver has a clear advantage over the Spurs. Jamal Murray, while he didn’t have the breakout season many predicted, had a good season averaging 18.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG and 4.8 APG, as opposed to Derrick White for the Spurs, who averages about 10/4/4. But White plays better than the box score shows. He is big for a point guard at 6’4 and a smart player who only averages 1.4 turnovers per game. He is going to give Denver and Murray all sorts of trouble on defense. White is also a Colorado native, so you bet he is going to come out and play his best for his hometown. Murray is the better player, but White is not going to let Murray take over.
For the two other guards that both teams play with, it is a tie. Gary Harris is likely going to get the matchup defensively against DeMar DeRozan, which is going to be a big test for the 5th year guard. DeRozan has the experience advantage and even though coming into the season Harris had big expectations, injuries derailed his season and he never quite caught a rhythm. Will Barton could get the matchup against Bryn Forbes, and while Forbes can shoot the lights out, Barton is much bigger and if played right will take complete advantage of that size difference on the offensive end.
This last matchup is going to decide the series. Nikola Jokic against LaMarcus Aldridge, and Paul Millsap against Jakob Poeltl. Offensively, Jokic is arguably the best big man in the league, but on the defensive end is where he struggles. While he is not as defensively challenged as the national media plays him out to be, he can’t hang with Aldridge. Aldridge has averaged 22.7 PPG against Denver on 55% shooting, and that has been with Millsap and Mason Plumlee on him for most of those possessions. Millsap should be the best choice to guard him, but there is a three-inch height difference. While Plumlee could be beneficial on defense, offensively he is a liability. If Denver pays too much attention to LMA, the supporting cast could destroy them.
Both of these teams rely heavily on their benches, often coming in to stabilize the game or hold a lead. The Spurs have always had a great bench unit. They have a four-man bench unit, consisting of Rudy Gay, Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli and Davis Bertans. Bertans is one of the best shooters in the league, as are Belinelli and Mills. Gay has been in the league a long time and provides a big scoring presence off the bench. San Antonio is the best three-point shooting team percentage wise in the NBA, and the bench is the main reason for that. But the Nuggets are not running out terrible players off the bench every night. As a matter of fact, Denver also has one of the best benches in the league.
Monte Morris has been one of, if not the best backup point guard in the league. He set a Denver franchise single-season record for assist to turnover ratio, at just under 6:1. On any other team save one with an all-star at PG, he would be starting. Malik Beasley has been a revelation, filling in when Harris was hurt. Torrey Craig frequently locks up the opposing wing player, and Plumlee has been one of the best backup centers in the league. This matchup is tough to judge as Plumlee and Millsap are the only ones on Denver who possess any sort of playoff experience, while all of San Antonio’s has significant experience. Going off the Nuggets regular season, Denver has a slight advantage, but that all could change in the postseason.
This is pretty simple, Gregg Popovich is the best coach in the NBA, going against his disciple Michael Malone, coaching his first playoff team. Throughout the 22-year postseason run by the Spurs, one thing has remained constant: coach Pop. The culture he has instilled into San Antonio has spanned two full decades and might be more. Malone has steadily built up the Nuggets from almost the bottom of the West to the number two seed in just four years. He deserves a lot of credit and deservingly should get plenty of coach of the year votes. But he’s not Popovich. If this series comes down to coaching, then the Spurs may get out of the first round.
Denver is the best home team in the league, ending the season with a 34-7 record. San Antonio is the worst road team in the Western Conference playoffs, with a 16-25 record. As you could expect, that doesn’t shape up well for the Spurs. Especially a team that hasn’t beaten Denver on the road in two full seasons. However, that is nothing compared to the Nuggets struggles in San Antonio. Denver hasn’t won in San Antonio since the 2011-12 season. That’s SEVEN years. The last two seasons have had some close games, with San Antonio only winning by one point in the last matchup in their house. Denver plays well at home, but on the road, they take a while to get a flow. If Denver can come back home for game five up 3-1, then they will win in five games.
But if Denver can’t get one in San Antonio, then this series could go to seven games. Popovich has a career 3-3 record in game sevens, while Malone has yet to coach in a game one. While inexperience is something that people point to as a flaw for Denver, that isn’t the case. They only have two rotation players who have actual playoff experience in Plumlee and Millsap, but Denver played in “playoff” games last season. Denver had to win its last seven games to get into the playoffs last year, and they won six of those seven. The only loss? The last game of the year versus Minnesota. All those games were essentially game sevens. One loss and Denver was out.
Denver doesn’t have 22 straight seasons of making the playoffs, but they aren’t completely hopeless in that category. Denver should win in 5-7 games, but being an underdog may be exactly what Popovich wanted. You never know in the playoffs. That’s why it is so great.
DENVER, CO – DECEMBER 10: Tyler Lydon (20) of the Denver Nuggets, Jamal Murray (27), Nikola Jokic (15) and Torrey Craig (3) sit on the bench during the second half of the Nuggets’ 105-99 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, December 10, 2018. The Denver Nuggets hosted the Memphis Grizzlies at the Pepsi Center. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)