Spurs hang on to beat Nuggets in potential playoff preview

The Spurs pushed their winning streak to three games with a narrow 104-103 home victory over the Nuggets on Monday. San Antonio barely survived Denver’s hot shooting in the second half despite leading by double digits for almost the entire game.

Overall, this was a satisfying win over a high-quality opponent for the Spurs, who now have a three-game cushion as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. Let’s dissect what happened from a San Antonio perspective with three observations, two questions and one prediction.

3 Observations

A three-point barrage nearly shocked the Spurs

The Spurs outshot the Nuggets by five percent from the field, committed four fewer turnovers, made 10 more free throws and equaled Denver in the rebound battle. San Antonio never trailed in Monday’s contest and led by 18 points with seven minutes left in the game.

And yet, a missed Gary Harris jumper at the buzzer would’ve won the game for Denver.

The key factor in this game was three-point shooting. Denver shot 17-of-40 from downtown to San Antonio’s 8-of-25. The Nuggets canned 14-of-24 three-pointers in the second half for 42 of their 55 points.

This game reminded me a Popovich quote from November of this season. Here’s what he said, per Chicago Bulls writer Sam Smith:

Now you look at a stat sheet after a game and the first thing you look at is the threes. If you made threes and the other team didn’t, you win. You don’t even look at the rebounds or the turnovers or how much transition D was involved.

San Antonio was the better team for basically the entire game in both energy and execution. However, the Nuggets’ flurry of threes nearly rendered that irrelevant.

Pop noted, per Jabari Young of The Athletic, that San Antonio’s defense was pretty good on most of Denver’s late threes, too. He was right. The Spurs played the three-point line responsibly, but it didn’t matter.

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The Spurs should be thankful that they escaped the Nuggets’ flame-throwing exhibition with a win.

DeMar DeRozan is back

DeRozan’s slump in the several weeks prior to the All-Star break was concerning. He wasn’t attacking the rim nearly enough, his midrange jumper was off and he looked generally tentative as a scorer.

Since the break, though, DeRozan has made at least half of his field-goal attempts in every game. He’s found a nice balance between calling his own number (23 points per game) and trusting his teammates (six assists per game) since then. His trademark patience with the ball is back. He’s getting to his spots on the floor using crafty footwork and tricky dribble moves. His defense has been solid, too.

San Antonio’s challenge for the rest of the season is keeping DeRozan healthy and fresh. His minute load (35.2 per game for the season) still concerns me.

Home sweet home

San Antonio finished its Rodeo Road Trip several days ago, compiling just a 1-7 record on the trip. It was more of the same from these Spurs, who are tied for 20th in the league in road winning percentage (33.3) and just 22nd in road net rating (minus-5.3).

But their home winning percentage (78.1) now ranks fourth and their home net rating (plus-7.0) is eighth-best in the NBA. San Antonio’s defense is a whopping 9.1 points per 100 possessions better at the AT&T Center.

The Spurs again looked comfy at home facing off against the West’s second-best team. The squad defends much more physically at home and communicates considerably better.

Strong play at home is a great thing. But San Antonio likely won’t have home-court advantage in any playoff series, so it will have to learn to bring it on the road.

2 Questions

Does Derrick White have a chance at All-Defense this season?

I’ve yet to see much discussion on the NBA’s All-Defensive Teams for this season. I assume most voters would have Marcus Smart and Jrue Holiday as the two First Team guards if the season ended today. But I don’t know who else they’re watching.

I’m going to throw White’s name into the discussion as a Second Team option. He doesn’t completely smother guys like Kawhi Leonard used to do, but he’s really tough to get by and his hustle and active arms make him quite impactful. He was great again on Monday, accumulating three blocks, one steal, two deflections and 14 shot contests.

He ranks first among guards in Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (plus-2.03), with Lonzo Ball (plus-1.62) as his closest competitor. His Defensive Real Plus-Minus (plus-1.57) is fifth among guards.

162 guards have played at least 500 minutes per game this season. White is only one of seven from that group to average two steals and one block per 100 possessions. Despite the Spurs’ slow pace of play and White’s mere 25.6 minutes per game, no guard contests more shots per game than he does (9.4).

White’s odds at actually earning a spot are still slim. His 15 missed games due to injury, relatively low minutes and lack of name recognition will hurt. But voters should definitely consider him at awards time.

How often will Jakob Poeltl and LaMarcus Aldridge start together?

Poeltl got the start next to Aldridge on Monday for the third straight game. The Spurs haven’t usually started two traditional bigs this season, so this stretch is a bit of a change.

According to the San Antonio Express-News’ Jeff McDonald, Pop said he prefers to start two traditional big men every night and only doesn’t do so when matchups don’t allow it. However, he’s only started two of Aldridge, Poeltl and Pau Gasol 16 times in 65 games this season. Apparently, the matchup isn’t favorable for that configuration in most games.

I’m not against starting Aldridge and Poeltl together sometimes, as long as they still see plenty of time without each other. Thankfully, that was the case on Monday, as they shared the floor for just over 10 of the game’s 48 minutes. Drew Eubanks got a four-minute stint in the second quarter due to Poeltl’s foul trouble, but he wasn’t on with Aldridge.

1 Prediction

Davis Bertans is going to have a big performance in Atlanta

Bertans is stuck in his biggest shooting slump of the season. He’s scored a total of 13 points in 108 minutes over his last five games, shooting just 2-of-11 from three-point range.

Opponents have recently done a great job of limiting Bertans’ impact by covering him closely off the ball. However, the Hawks, San Antonio’s Wednesday opponent, don’t guard shooters well. Atlanta had a streak of 13 straight games allowing 12 or more made three-pointers to its opponents between February 1 and March 1.

Combine that with pure regression to the mean, and the Latvian Laser should find his rhythm on Wednesday with at least two or three trifectas.

Note: All statistics are from BBall Index, NBA.com, ESPN or Basketball-Reference.com. Video clips are from NBA.com and the Ximo Pierto YouTube account.

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