Grades: San Antonio Spurs vs. Denver Nuggets – Game #81

In what will go down as one of the most memorable games of Victor Wembanyama’s rookie season, the San Antonio Spurs stunned the Denver Nuggets at the Frost Bank Center on Friday night. The loss dropped the Nuggets from the top seed in the Western Conference all the way down to the third seed. 

The first quarter was neck and neck. At the end of the period, the Spurs were up 32-31. The Nuggets turned up the physicality in the second quarter. Specifically, they started being rough with Wembanyama. The strategy worked, as Denver won the second period by 19 points, 37-18.

In the third, the Nuggets saw their lead expand to 23 points. However, an angry and focused Wembanyama didn’t allow the good guys to go down without a fight. During a three-minute stretch in the third quarter, San Antonio’s star rookie scored 17 points. At the end of that outburst, the Spurs were within eight points.

The Nuggets rebuilt their advantage in the fourth quarter, as the Spurs found themselves in a 17-point hole with ten minutes remaining. Once again, the Spurs battled back. With Wembanyama and friends making big play after big play the rest of the way, San Antonio got within three points with a minute remaining.

Devonte’ Graham hit a layup with 30 seconds left in regulation to get San Antonio within a point. After the Spurs got a stop, Graham hit a floater with less than a second remaining that proved to be the game-winner.

All in all, it was a great win — especially given the injury woes. Wembanyama faced adversity and was able to rise above everything to take his game to another level. The supporting cast did their part and played with a lot of courage down the stretch. This is the kind of rugged, smart play that could carry forward into next season. 

Stats: Spurs vs. Nuggets

spurs nuggets grades

Spurs vs. Nuggets – Final Grades

Victor Wembanyama

It was another fantastic outing for Wembanyama. Sure, he turned it over seven times and he let frustration negatively impact his decision-making — but the rookie was great. Offensively, he was asked to carry a gargantuan load and he was able to do just that. He looked like an unstoppable force of nature in the three-minute third quarter stretch in which he scored 17 points. When Wembanyama gets it going from three-point land and is aggressive with his moves, there’s not much anyone can do. Defensively, he was strong on the boards and defended the hoop better and better as the game progressed. His help defense was consistently really good. The Nuggets apparently thought they could beat up the rookie and intimidate him. That turned out to be an unwise decision, as Wembanyama now has Denver sitting in the third seed thinking about what they did wrong.

Grade: A

Tre Jones

Offensively, I liked how Jones played. His shot-selection was good and he drove the ball with purpose. His running of the sets was excellent and he authored a number of fine passes. When Jones is taking an active role in the offense, everything tends to flow much better. Defensively, he wasn’t good individually but his rotations were timely and he chased down loose balls.

Grade: B+

Julian Champagnie

Champagnie picked his spots very well versus the Nuggets. When he wasn’t throwing down an athletic dunk, he was spotting up and draining a three-pointer. Champagnie scoring 14 points on five field goal attempts is the type of efficiency the Spurs needed to keep up with the Nuggets. I also liked his defense. Champagnie has gotten better and better at using his length to his advantage on the defensive end.

Grade: B+

Sandro Mamukelashvili

I’ve wanted Mamukelashvili to play more minutes all season. Tonight, he again showed that he’s a really intriguing pairing with Wembanyama. On offense, Mamukelashvili is both smart and crafty. He knows where and when to cut. Add in an undying amount of hustle and it’s simply fun to watch him operate. Against the Nuggets, Mamukelashvili shot with confidence from deep and hit 3-of-5 attempts. Defensively, it wasn’t always pretty but he had some positive possessions. He really aided the cause rebounding-wise and his hustle helped to clog the lane. 

Grade: A

Blake Wesley

With Malaki Branham joining Devin Vassell, Jeremy Sochan, Keldon Johnson, Cedi Osman and Dominick Barlow on the sidelines, Wesley got the start at shooting guard. He … wasn’t good. Defensively, he struggled mightily. The Nuggets feasted on Wesley’s inexperience on that end. Offensively, he wasn’t much better. He had a couple good passes but he was largely ineffective during his 19 minutes.

Grade: D

Devonte’ Graham

Graham hit the two biggest shots of the game including the game-winner. Throughout the contest, I liked how he played. He was playing hard-nosed on D even though he was usually too small to put up much of a fight. Offensively, Graham let it fly whenever he had daylight, which helped to spread the court. His passing and ball-handling were also better than usual. Graham didn’t have the greatest shooting night but he was 2-for-2 when it mattered most.

Grade: B+

Zach Collins

Collins’ all-around production was really helpful. In 21 minutes, he poured in 15 points, six rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block. On offense, Collins knocked down a couple threes and he was extra burly in the paint. Defensively, he was efforting at a high level — both inside and outside. Collins playing with a palpable amount of chutzpah was a difference-maker against the Nuggets.

Grade: A-

Sidy Cissoko

The bad: Cissoko’s three-point attempt didn’t look smooth and he had five fouls in 17 minutes. The good: Cissoko played the best game of his career. Going against one of the top teams in the league, the rookie found ways to contribute. Mostly notably, his defense was really good. He was scratching, clawing and throwing his body around. For someone so inexperienced, I was impressed with his knowledge of the help principles. Offensively, Cissoko made a difference by running the court hard, timing his cuts well and finishing with purpose.

Grade: A-

David Duke Jr.

Of the three G Leaguers who have played for the Spurs recently, Duke is clearly the most developed of that clan. Defensively, he knows what to do. His quickness out on the perimeter is really impressive. When it comes to rotations, I saw him move early a few times and correctly predict what the Nuggets were trying to do. That’s high level stuff. Offensively, Duke clearly needs a better jumper but he plays with an obvious amount of basketball IQ on that end too.

Grade: B+

Pop

This was a classic Pop win. He utilized a lot of smoke and mirrors to give his guys a chance. Defensively, he disguised coverages all game long to make sure that Denver never found a sustained rhythm. Offensively, the play-calling was really good and the coaching staff wisely made sure that Wembanyama was the primary initiator whenever possible.

Grade: A-