The Spurs received one of the more ideal postseason draws in the Western Conference this season.
They avoided the top-seeded Golden State Warriors and the red-hot No. 4 Houston Rockets and instead will face the No. 2 Denver Nuggets in the first round. The Nuggets are a very good team with a lot of talent and chemistry, but they do lack playoff experience compared to the Spurs and the other West playoff teams. And, should the Spurs upset the Nuggets, they would also avoid the Warriors, Rockets and Jazz in the second round.
San Antonio still has a lot to prove as a No. 7 seed that faced plenty of adversity during the regular season, though. Let’s discuss five important questions that will affect how the Spurs perform in the playoffs, starting with the Nuggets matchup.
What Will Marco Belinelli Provide?
If you’re a Spurs fan, you may have conflicted feelings on Belinelli as a player.
On one hand, he hits some amazing, momentum-shifting shots and was a key component in the team’s 2014 championship run. His constant motion on offense is conducive to the Spurs executing the “Beautiful Game” play style that buoyed their championship run five years ago.
On the other hand, Belinelli’s shot selection is extremely frustrating when he’s not in a groove. He’s also a major negative on defense. Among wings with at least 1,000 minutes, his BBall Index talent percentiles in perimeter (5.8) and interior defense (7.8) are unbelievably bad. His Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (minus-1.96) ranked 516th out of 530 NBA players this season.
The sharpshooting vet has dealt with hip soreness in the past several days, and it’s affected his productivity. In his last four games, he’s totaled eight points, four assists, five turnovers on 3-of-24 shooting (2-of-15 from three) in 73 minutes.
Belinelli needs to quickly round back into shape. If he continues to play inefficient offense, Gregg Popovich should feel free to drastically cut his minutes.
Whose Minutes Will Be Significantly Adjusted?
Speaking of minutes, it’s a bit of a mystery what Popovich will do there. When Pau Gasol hasn’t been playing and injuries or foul trouble haven’t affected things, San Antonio has used a nine-man rotation. Recently, all nine guys have been getting at least 18 to 20 minutes. Jakob Poeltl occasionally has gotten a bit less burn against quicker, smaller teams.
I highly doubt Pop will keep things the same in the playoffs. Last year, he gave Patty Mills and Rudy Gay huge playing time bumps against the Warriors at the expense of Kyle Anderson, Danny Green and Dejounte Murray.
One player I would love to see get more time on the floor, at least against Denver, is Derrick White. His combination of size and skill at the combo guard position makes him a good matchup against Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Monte Morris. He averages 25.8 minutes per game, but I think he deserves at least 30 in this series.
Aside from that, I could see a bit more “big ball” than normal with both Poeltl and Aldridge when Denver goes with two of Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee together.
In general, Pop has a lot of tough decisions ahead of him. He needs to make sure his lineups are defensively sound, but the three-point shooting of Mills, Forbes, Belinelli and Davis Bertans must stay a factor for the Spurs to score enough points.
Will Road Struggles Doom the Spurs?
The Spurs went 32-9 at home this season. That record puts them tied for third among the 16 playoff teams. Unfortunately, they also went 16-25 on the road. The Pistons (15-26) are the only playoff squad that was less successful away from home. This was also a problem last year for San Antonio, when the team went 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road.
San Antonio will take its 16-25 road record into Denver for the first two games of the playoffs. As luck would have it, the Nuggets’ 34-7 mark at home led the NBA this season. There’s a chance that having several days in the Mile High City will help the Spurs adjust to the altitude, but Denver is still really tough at the Pepsi Center.
For all practical purposes, the Spurs will not have home-court advantage in any series this postseason. The squad will quickly need to get over any effort- or scheme-related issues on defense that it has faced on the road.
Will DeMar DeRozan Exorcise His Playoff Demons?
DeRozan made the NBA playoffs in five straight years as a Raptor between 2014 and 2018. Toronto failed to meet expectations in almost all of those years, and DeRozan was frequently at the forefront of the team’s underachievement.
DeMar has a career true-shooting percentage of 49.7 in the playoffs and has some absolutely pathetic performances to his name in the second season. He’s struggled against longer, more physical defenders and hasn’t brought the proper amount of defensive effort to match the heightened stakes.
Will a change of scenery alter the narrative on DeRozan?
Denver is an interesting matchup for the four-time All-Star. The Nuggets’ usual perimeter starters (Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton) are not particularly imposing defenders for big, skilled wings like DeRozan. However, reserve Torrey Craig is a tougher matchup with his 6’7″, 215-pound frame and longer wingspan. Craig isn’t an offensive threat, but he could end up playing extended minutes to frustrate DeRozan.
Ultimately, DeRozan just needs to bring a tougher mindset into this playoff run. He needs to be aggressive driving to the rim to score or create an open shot for a teammate, not just to get a foul call. He also needs to build on his defensive improvement this season and become reliable with his effort on that end against consistently strong competition.
Will Experience and Coaching Tangibly Benefit the Spurs?
These are the key advantages San Antonio has over basically any postseason team, but especially the Nuggets.
The Spurs’ entire nine-man rotation has played in the postseason before and has combined for 315 playoff games. Of the Nuggets’ nine most-used players since the All-Star break, only Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Mason Plumlee have tasted the postseason (121 combined games).
On the sidelines, we have Popovich (277 playoff games coached, five championships) versus Mike Malone (no playoff experience). And Malone knows it.
Pop’s offensive (90.0) and defensive (96.7) coach optimization percentiles easily outpace Malone’s percentiles (56.7 and 33.3, respectively) since 2013-14.
Experience and coaching certainly aren’t be-all and end-all factors in playoff matchups, but they can carry some weight. The Spurs are at a talent disadvantage against the Nuggets and pretty much every other Western Conference team.
San Antonio will need to be the team that makes the decisive adjustments and stays more composed in key moments if it plans to win a round or two.