Zach Gotlieb | April 13th, 2019
What a season it has been for both teams. The Nuggets came into the season off a heartbreaking Game 82 loss that kept them out of the playoffs last season. This year, they pushed all the way up to the second-best record in the Western Conference despite being one of the youngest teams in the league and leading the league in games lost due to injury, missing at least one starter for over 60 games this season. The San Antonio Spurs are right in the thick of it as usual, and they did it without having any of the trio of Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker or the “heir apparent” Kawhi Leonard. Despite not having the usual cast, the team has stuck to the same style of play that has kept them among the most consistently good teams in the league over the last 20 years. Here’s what to expect from each team going into the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs.
Overall: What a year it has been for the Denver Nuggets. The team faced a ton of adversity and growing pains this season. The injuries killed the team more so than any other team in the league and honestly, it may be the reason that Denver will be as ready as they are. It’s given the most important bench players, like Monte Morris and Malik Beasley the opportunity to get more playing time and find their own role with the team and in turn, they’ve become the x-factors for the team on a nightly basis. The team as a whole is at their best when the ball is moving, players are moving without the ball when they are driving to basket and running the offense out of the post where they can finish down low or kick out for open jump shots. Defensively, they only have a few straight up defenders and several guys who are solid, but not great defenders. They rely on team defense and putting a collective effort in on defense which has led them to be among the more efficient teams, especially in ‘clutch time.’ With the highest defensive rating of any team in the league at 95.3 in those situations. They’re very good at situational defense, and that has won them games on numerous occasions including their Game 82 win that clinched the 2 seed, in which they didn’t give up a point in the final 3:52 of the game.
Key Players: Perhaps the most critical player to the success of the Nuggets is Jamal Murray. Make no mistake, Nikola Jokic is the best player on the team, and that’s not a question. However, the key is going to be Murray. The problem with Murray is that he is wicked inconsistent at times, not only night-to-night but in-game he can go from cold as ice to hotter than the sun really really fast. When Murray switches the switch from off to on, the local broadcast team has coined the term of “a flurry from Murray” (the national broadcast team better use it at least once), and it’s an accurate statement. He can score points quickly and in high volume, which has proven to be the difference in multiple games this season. If Jamal Murray is hitting his shots and playing with energy on both ends of the floor, the Nuggets are going to be very tough to beat.
Paul Millsap has more experience in the playoffs than the rest of the team combined. He has been the calming voice of the team all season long, providing consistency and big performances when the rest of the team was struggling. His biggest value is on the defensive end. The team has a few great defenders and several guys that can be good defenders when they choose to be. Millsap is among the great defenders. While he’s undersized at 6’8, his quick hands and physical nature make him a very tough defender. If the Nuggets want to make any sort of playoff run, they are going to have to rely on savvy veteran for production and calming voice as they have all season.
Malik Beasley and Monte Morris have been the true x-factors for the team all season long. Last season, the bench was one of the biggest weaknesses for the team and were the reason for several of the games lost. This year, the bench has become one of the significant strengths as one of the deepest and most productive benches in the league, and it all starts with Morris and Beasley. Neither of them have had any real role in the NBA up until this year, and they have greatly exceeded expectations. Both are averaging career highs in everything and lead the team in 3-point percentage while being top 15 in the league in that category. Both players have really been able to step up and provide a spark night in and night out, just by playing with high energy. Monte Morris is second in the league in assist: turnover ratio and has been the key to him keeping a role on this team even when Isaiah Thomas returned from injury. If Denver wants to make a playoff run, the bench has to continue to produce, and it starts with these two.
The bottom line: Denver has the tendency to take their foot off the gas and show little urgency at bad times as well as the tendency to fall in love with the 3 which completely throws off their offense that is based primarily on driving and kicking, scoring down low and playing through the post. But their biggest issue-which is entirely out of their control- is that they lack playoff experience- we’ll see how big of an impact that’ll mean. At the end of the day, if Denver wants to make it to the second round of the playoffs and get by the savvy Gregg Popovich, they have to stick to their guns and really play hard on both ends for 48 minutes. The margin for error is so small, one slip up and Pop will find it, exploit it, and kill as he has for the last 20 years.
San Antonio Spurs
Overall: The offseason was kind of a mess. Manu Ginobili retired, Tony Parker was let go, and the real dumpster fire of the Kawhi Leonard situation ended with him forcing his way out and getting traded to Toronto while acquiring Demar DeRozan for their troubles. The expectations going into the sea were not as high as they typically are. The thing is, the single most crucial piece of the classic Spurs team is Gregg Popovich, and he’s still there which means there’s always going to be a chance for the Spurs. The injuries at guard early in the season were extensive. In particular, a knee injury to starting point guard Dejounte Murray, from the start and it pushed second-year guard Derrick White into the spotlight to take the starting role, and he’s blossomed into an excellent guard that plays the pure point guard role while taking on the best offensive guard on defense. The addition of Demar DeRozan proved, obviously, to be a big one being second in points per game while having the second highest effective shooting percentage of his career. He and LaMarcus Aldridge are the leaders of this team offensively, and they are going to be hugely important, especially at the end of games.
Key Players: DeMar DeRozan is the star of this team. He’s hit big shots in Toronto and now in San Antonio. DeRozan has one of the best mid-range games in the NBA and can hit from anywhere inside the arc. The problem is that he is not a 3-point shooter. He posted the second worst 3-point percentage of his career at 15%, albeit shooting less than 1 per game. If the Spurs want to make it past the Nuggets, DeRozan is going to have to play like the star he is and play tough on offense and defense.
LaMarcus Aldridge is a Nugget killer. Don’t know what it is about him playing Denver, but jeez he just finds another notch. He’s an extremely athletic big man that can score inside and out. He’s shown to be a good defender. He is the team’s leading scorer at 21.3 points per game shooting a true shooting percentage of 52% which is better than his career average. He is going to be huge in whether or not the Spurs can pull off a first-round upset.
Derrick White is the hometown kid. White grew up in Parker, Colorado which usually brings a big crowd of friends and family to games to watch him play and boy are they going to get to watch a blossoming up and coming player that is quickly becoming one of the most important pieces of the team. He got thrust into the starting lineup with an injury to Dejounte Murray, and he hasn’t disappointed. What’s really striking is his extremely high basketball IQ and his great defensive effort. He is the guy that is going to be in charge of guarding Jamal Murray and making sure he does not go off because that will spell trouble for San Antonio. Derrick can get to the basket and finish at the basket, but he’s got to be able to hit jump shots consistently, which is the next step in his progression and showing signs of that in the playoffs would be really really big for the Spurs
The Bottom Line: The Spurs have a ton of playoff experience up and down the roster starting with Popovich, and that should help give them an advantage in this series. LaMarcus Aldridge historically has always played really well against the Nuggets, and they’re going to need all of the products they can get from him. Demar DeRozan is gonna have to play like a star while the role players have to perform their roles. Gregg Popovich is gonna have to pull out all the stops to get his team into the second round.
The Nuggets have shown the ability to compete with just about any team in the league. The Spurs are always gonna be around, and that’s likely gonna make each game a close one. In close games, based on regular season stats, the Nuggets have the highest net rating in clutch time while having the fourth most games played in clutch time. Either team can come out of this series with a win, but neither team is a particularly good road team, so this could easily go 7 games, and in both the amount of home games and clutch stats, the Nuggets are gonna survive this series in 7 games, with each team winning their games at home.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images