Spurs use offensive balance to force Game 7 versus Nuggets

And we’re heading to a Game 7!

The Spurs pulled away from the Nuggets on Thursday in Game 6 of their Western Conference First Round series to win 120-103. Nikola Jokic was fantastic for the Nuggets, but the Spurs had more players play better, especially in the fourth quarter, and they were able to extend their season.

Let’s discuss this game from a Spurs lens with three observations, two questions and one prediction.

3 Observations

Three star performances > one superstar performance

Nikola Jokic looked every bit like an MVP candidate in this game. He dropped in all sorts of shots: turnaround jumpers, rainbow threes and midrange jumpers, tip-ins, short hooks off nice post moves. To go with his 43 points, he had 12 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and a block.

The Spurs didn’t nearly have anyone match Jokic’s performance individually. However, the combination of LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay (finally!) all playing very well was more than enough to counteract Jokic’s masterpiece. San Antonio’s top three scorers combined for 70 points on a 70.9 true-shooting percentage. Between the three of them, they turned the ball over just once. How’s that for efficiency?

Overall, the Spurs had eight players register at least six points in this game, and the Nuggets had only four. Unlike much of this series, it was the Spurs who found a nice offensive balance and the Nuggets who struggled to get production out of supporting players.

The Spurs’ shot-making was on point

The Spurs came out in Game 6 with a fantastic offensive effort. They committed just seven turnovers and generally executed pretty well, but where they really shined was on their individual shot-making. It’s been a relative strength for the team all year.

San Antonio had a remarkable effective field-goal percentage of 68.6 on its 51 jumpers taken 11 feet or further from the basket. Denver had 35 such shot attempts and had just a 35.7 effective field-goal percentage on them.

Many of the Spurs’ makes weren’t necessarily the result of “beating” the Nuggets’ defense. Rather, it was often high-level offense from San Antonio beating solid defense from Denver. The Spurs seemed to get a lot of good bounces on the rim that the Nuggets weren’t getting.

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It will be tough for the Spurs to get the same sort of shooting luck in Game 7 on the road. That’s not to say it’s impossible, but they will need to stay focused and composed on their jumpers if they plan to win the series.

Pop condensed his rotation to eight players

Facing elimination, Pop decided that his key personnel adjustment would be not playing Davis Bertans. Like, not even at all. Bertans didn’t even make the garbage-time lineup that played the final two minutes of the game.

As a result, Aldridge (38 minutes), Gay (28) and Patty Mills (25) all had series highs in minutes played.

Bertans played just six minutes in Game 3, but he’d been between 16 and 20 minutes in the other four games. It was definitely surprising to see him completely phased out on Thursday. It appears that Pop doesn’t like the Latvian Laser trying to deal with the size and physicality of Denver’s big men and the speed of the Nuggets’ guards. His three-point shooting (3-of-11) has also been neutralized.

2 Questions

Was this the right way to defend Jokic?

The Spurs send much fewer bodies at Jokic in Game 6. They still played decent one-on-one defense against him, led by Jakob Poeltl, but they looked content to let him score plenty of points in exchange for keeping his teammates under control.

Jokic took a career-high 30 shots from the field on Thursday. He also had a whopping 89 frontcourt touches and 5.3 minutes of possession in this game. His averages in the first five games of the series were 66.4 frontcourt touches and 4.2 minutes of possession. In the regular season, he was even lower, at 55.4 frontcourt touches and 3.6 minutes of possession.

San Antonio’s defensive strategy worked. It caused the Nuggets to deviate from the balanced offensive style that worked for them during the regular season in exchange for a more Jokic-centered attack. This may have taken the rhythm away from Jokic’s teammates. It also could have had the secondary effect of tiring out the Nuggets’ All-Star big man for the other end of the floor.

The question here is whether this strategy is replicable in Game 7. Surely Mike Malone will try to devise some way to ease Jokic’s offensive burden. Also, role players customarily perform better at home, so that’s something to watch for.

Is Davis Bertans going to play in Game 7?

Gregg Popovich has a smarter basketball mind than me and anyone else that follows the Spurs.  That doesn’t mean we can’t question his decisions every now and then.

It’s easy to focus on the result of this game and conclude that benching Bertans was the right move. However, I wasn’t wild about Bertans not playing at all when Mills got 25 minutes and Belinelli had 20.

Mills was 0-of-7 from downtown and made some poor defensive plays. Belinelli chipped in nine points with 2-of-4 shooting from three-point range, but he also continued to struggle on defense. This win was about the excellence of Aldridge, DeRozan, Gay and solid performances from Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl and Bryn Forbes, not the Spurs’ bench guards.

Bertans isn’t the best matchup for this series, but I still don’t think he’s bad enough against Denver’s bigs or guards to justify being completely benched. Even in his worst matchups, I’d argue that the 6’10” forward still better defensively than Mills and Belinelli. And he provides spacing even when his shot isn’t falling.

I’d like to see Bertans at least get a chance to prove his worth in Game 7.

1 Prediction

Game 7 will come down to the final minute

This series has taken many twists and turns in the first six games. Both teams have looked like the clearly better team at several different points. Momentum hasn’t carried very much from game to game.

I think Game 7 will go down to the wire. Denver has the series’ best player and a better roster overall, but San Antonio isn’t too far behind. The Spurs have the coaching advantage and more players equipped to deal with the pressure of a Game 7.

As far as a prediction, I’d venture a guess that Denver’s home-court advantage will give the squad the slight boost needed to win the contest. But neither result would surprise me.

Note: All statistics are from NBA.com, unless otherwise noted.

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