As the Spurs’ rematch against the Denver Nuggets became inevitable at one point in the third quarter, the rest of the night began to write. The San Antonio bench cleared, fans headed for the exits, and any member of the media heading towards Gregg Popovich’s post-game presser could have guessed not just the tone but the beats: a Pop no impressed would appear and, in a short prepared statement, respectfully compliment his opponents, do the opposite for his own team, and leave without answering questions.
The Spurs coach obliged shortly after:
âDenver was a great example of how you react after a loss, and we did the opposite,â Pop said. âWe showed how you don’t want to react after a win. So they handled the loss well. We didn’t handle the victory very well at all.
It’s not that Spurs become fully predictable 25 games into the season. An offense that struggled in the half court out of the gate had posted a 5th best score in the 6-game streak leading up to Saturday, with better three-point shooting numbers and a more aggressive Derrick White . On the other hand, the defensive intensity has waned; turnovers are not generated at the same volume, and San Antonio’s odds for their part have ranked 24th since Nov. 10. Every three or four games, Thaddeus Young supplants Drew Eubanks in the save center rotation. Injuries have allowed them to play their favorite starting lineup just 10 times, including Saturday thanks to the return of Keldon Johnson.
But despite this ebb and flow, games like Saturday, against a Denver team lacking Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and Will Barton, are a reminder of this team’s narrow margin for success. While the Spurs have done well in reaching the free throw line (their 29 FTAs ââoverall are their 2nd highest of the season), the Nuggets have contained the pick and roll and limited clean looks around the basket. Dejounte Murray racked up 4 first-half turnovers trying to pass through gaps that weren’t there, and Mike Malone saw a much better defensive rebound in his group after giving up 20 offensive boards to San Antonio on Thursday ( the 14 allowed on Saturday looks worse than it was, most of these occurring during the game’s extended recovery time).
A glance at the box’s score reveals where Denver really killed San Antonio: Beyond the Arc. Starting in the 2nd quarter when reservists Bones Hyland and Markus Howard – pushed into significant minutes thanks to the Nuggets ‘roster – bombarded Spurs’ second unit. At halftime, the Nuggets had scored 13 trebles, this pair representing 6; Denver has finished 20 of 43 since the dead of the night.
While a defeat on the three-point line is to be expected with this group, Spurs have also looked more vulnerable against bigger opponents this season, and a more revitalized Denver side have frequently benefited from lags in the field. front area. Aaron Gordon continued his aggression from Thursday and easily attacked defenders like Johnson at the post, while Jokic (35 points, 17 rebounds, 8 assists in just 34 minutes) was the kind of MVP that MVPs often are.
These in-season mini-series are eye-opening for both teams, and it’s intriguing to see not only how the losing team reacts to the next game, but the added level of familiarity as well. Malone was classic himself during the pre-game uptime, a quote machine willing to speak out on any subject brought up. “Is there a number greater than one?” He answered a question about his team prioritizing the defensive rebound. He also touched on the subject of Gregg Popovich, in what an organization like Denver would like to emulate in San Antonio (namely, stability and excellence over decades) and in Pop’s influence on Malone and the community of coaches in the broad sense. Malone referred to “pop-isms” like “point five mentality” and “good to great”, as well as the concept of beautiful play as lexicon terms that coaches often preach to their players.
At the start of the year, games like this still serve as a calibration for fans. We’re not sure exactly what to remember with each 48-minute sample size – focus, effort, and health decline, after all – but we can feel the air of predictability starting to fill in some of the gaps in our confused minds, for better or worse.
Other Notes and Quotes
- San Antonio’s 44 points in the 2nd quarter mark another worst for the Spurs this season, surpassing the 43 they gave Indiana in a resounding loss earlier this year.
- Nikola Jokic earned a technique in the third quarter for apparently hanging on the rim too long, his second technical foul of the evening. Jokic popped out of him, probably because he had the same impression most of us had about what a second tech would mean. Instead, he stuck in the game and I wondered what distinction there is in the rulebook – not that I thought what Jokic had done deserved a kick in the least.
Either way, for all the curious, the NBA rulebook draws a line between “unsportsmanlike technical fouls,” like the one Jokic first received for theatrically protesting a no-appeal in. backcourt, and ânon-unsportsmanlike technical foulsâ, where Jokic’s second offense would fall.
“A technical foul called (1) delay of play, (2) violations of the coaches’ area, (3) 3 seconds of defense, (4) having a team total of less or more than five players when the ball comes alive , (5) a player hanging on the hoop or back board, (6) participating in the game while not on the team’s active roster, or (7) breaking the back board or making the edge unplayable during play (Commentary on Rules â G) is not considered unsportsmanlike conduct.
- âAt first I thought it was really bad when I first did it. Obviously, when I came back here, it calmed down a bit. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Luckily I had my ankles taped up and a few other things went my way. I’m just blessed and happy to be able to come back and play with my team. – Keldon Johnson after returning from ankle injury
- Johnson’s three-point shot remains a happy story. After shooting 33% last season, he hits over 43% in 2020-21, enjoying the open looks teams continue to allow him.