Grades: Spurs vs. Nuggets – Game 3, 2019 NBA Playoffs

In a game of runs, the Spurs outlasted the Nuggets on Thursday night 118-108 to take a 2-1 lead in the first round playoff series. San Antonio led by nine points after the first quarter and ended up winning by ten points — but it was far from easy. In fact, the details of this game will be remembered for many moons to come.

Midway into the first quarter, the game was tied 16-16. That’s when the first run commenced, as the Spurs were able to finish out the period on a 15-6 run. However, the script flipped to begin the second quarter. In the first three minutes, Denver sprinted to a 16-0 run to turn the nine-point deficit into a seven-point lead.

With a little bit more than five minutes left in the first half, San Antonio found themselves in a ten-point hole, 50-40. Thankfully, a three-minute run of their own — a 13-2 run, to be exact — carried the Spurs out of the hole and into the lead.

The good guys led 61-58 at halftime and the two teams traded mini-runs in the third quarter but neither squad was able to get a grasp on the proceedings. 

With an 88-84 advantage entering the fourth quarter, San Antonio’s lead dwindled to two points after a Malik Beasley three-pointer with 11:17 remaining. In what became the game’s final meaningful run, the Spurs outscored the Nuggets 19-4 over the course of five minutes to take the game by the scruff of the neck and put it to bed. 

While the Spurs had a few players who performed well, this game will always be known as Derrick White’s breakout party. The second year guard dominated the action on both ends of the court to put together one of the most impressive postseason performances in this storied franchise’s history, especially when you factor in his relative inexperience and his previously reached ceiling.

LaMarcus Aldridge B-
Aldridge is slowly getting better as this series progresses, however he can definitely play better than we’ve seen thus far. The good: His defense was intense, his rebounding on both sides of the floor was stout and he found open teammates when the Nuggets sent double-teams his way. Aldridge was aggressive enough offensively to draw a lot of attention, particularly in pick-and-pops. The bad: He scoring was inefficient, as he scored just 18 points on 17 field goal attempts. Aldridge’s main issue right now on offense is he needs to be stronger going to the rim. He’s having success when he drives, he just needs to do it more often — and with more chutzpah. If he can mix in pick-and-rolls with his pick-and-pops and go up stronger under the rim, he could have a breakout performance before this series is over. Defensively, he hasn’t been great but he’s doing enough, as Aldridge is the team’s best option to throw at Paul Millsap. 

DeMar DeRozan B-
If you just look at DeRozan’s statistics, one would assume that he had a solid ballgame. The truth, though, is much more complicated. In the first half, DeRozan was bad. He was just 1-for-7 from the floor with only two free throw attempts. Defensively, he was even worse, I thought. He got frustrated with the refs early on and he let his moping impact every aspect of his game, perhaps his defense most of all. DeRozan wasn’t tracking his man well, gave up too easily in one-on-one situations and was disengaged from the defensive gameplan. To his credit, he settled down at halftime and came out a different player after intermission. In the third quarter, he was great on offense. DeRozan scored 19 of the team’s 27 points on 7-for-9 shooting from the floor and 5-of-6 shooting from the charity stripe. The Spurs likely lose if he doesn’t explode in that period. I also thought he played wisely on offense in the fourth quarter, as well. Defensively, DeRozan had a couple positive moments sprinkled in during the second half but he mostly remained a liability for the duration of the night. 

Derrick White A++
Wow. What a performance by White. In the first half, he patiently found creases to the rim and relentlessly attacked the Nuggets interior. Never in a hurry, White took out his scalpel and carved Denver up to the tune of 26 first half points on 11-for-15 shooting. The Nuggets changed their strategy after halftime and White unselfishly shifted gears on the fly. He didn’t take a shot in the third quarter but played smart team basketball. In the fourth, White closed out what he started. He scored ten points in the final period while displaying fantastic playmaking ability whenever the Nuggets paid him too much attention. Oh, and let’s not overlook what White did on the defensive end. He was the best defender on the court for either team. White did a lot on that side of the floor, most notably shutting down Jamal Murray (six points on 2-for-6 shooting in 31 minutes). Great, great game … I don’t know what else to say. 

Bryn Forbes B
Defensively, I was actually somewhat impressed by Forbes tonight. He was quickly getting around screens, stayed in front of his man well, supplied timely help and got back in transition. It was quietly one of his better defensive games of the season. Offensively, Forbes had his moments — most of which came from behind the three-point arc — but he also forced up a few bad shots. I usually applaud his aggression on offense but Forbes took it a step too far tonight. That said, he had an above average night by providing spacing on offense and solid defense (compared to the rest of his perimeter counterparts outside of White, that is). 

Jakob Poeltl A-
In the first two games, the Spurs had difficulty dealing with Denver’s muscle in the middle. To help solve that issue, Poeltl played 31 minutes — his most playing time since the end of February. The adjustment paid immediate dividends. Poeltl’s defense on Nikola Jokic was admirable, as he guarded him out to the three-point line with quick feet and in the low post with muscle. He successfully tiptoed the line between applying pressure and being overly aggressive, which helped keep his fouls at reasonable level. At the same time, he protected the basket well and was active in the passing lanes. While Poeltl didn’t grab many defensive boards, he boxed out very well and the Spurs were able to grab just about every defensive board when he was on the court. Offensively, he was nuisance on the glass, made the right passes, set hardy screens and his touch around the rim was impressively deft. Overall, Poeltl’s combination of mobility, basketball smarts and hustle make him a valuable piece to the puzzle going forward. 

Rudy Gay C
Better. Not good … but better. Gay is now just 6-for-21 (28.6%) from the field this series outside of the second quarter of Game 1. While his shooting was off and he was painfully loose with the ball, Gay recovered some of his offensive value by crashing the boards and getting to the free throw line. Defensively, he exhibited more toughness and was stronger when it came to boxing out and grabbing contested rebounds. Gay is out of rhythm and the Nuggets are a difficult matchup for him but his effort can’t be questioned. Let’s hope he can get it going because the Spurs could really use an offensive focal point for the bench unit. 

Patty Mills D-
Yeesh. Mills is efforting on defense but that isn’t stopping the Nuggets from roasting him. When he’s on the court, it’s extremely difficult for the Spurs to get a single stop. He’s trying to compensate for his shortcomings with pressure but it’s having little impact. Offensively, Mills aimlessly dribbled too much, didn’t push the pace, made awkward and arrhythmic decisions, and was poor at running sets.

Marco Belinelli D-
As bad as Mills was on defense, Belinelli was worse. When the Nuggets ran his man off of a pick away from the ball, Belinelli was slow to react and ended up helplessly behind the play. Denver has installed specific sets to take advantage of Belinelli’s D and they work almost every time. Offensively, he was okay-ish but didn’t come close to negating his lack of defense. And while he hit a couple three-pointers on a trio of attempts, I wasn’t too impressed with his shot-selection this evening. 

Davis Bertans C
Bertans simply doesn’t have the heft to deal with the bigs on Denver. Rather than watch him get pushed around, the coaches opted to use Poeltl more. I can’t say I disagreed with that decision. Add in the fact that Denver’s rotation is filled with players that are either big and strong or players that are exceedingly quick for their position, and it’s plain to see why Bertans doesn’t fit in this series.

Pop B
First of all, Pop played a key role in Denver’s 16-0 run to start the second quarter by beginning the period with a lineup of Mills, Belinelli, Gay, Bertans and Poeltl. Against an athletic and rugged team like the Nuggets, that lineup is suicide. Pop also needs to do a better job of either hiding or at least separating Mills and Belinelli. The Nuggets are salivating whenever either one of those two players hit the court, so something must be done. Outside of those two glaring issues, I thought Pop coached a really good game. He put the ball in White’s hands early and often to try to make the Nuggets pay for shading their defense away from him. To say that was a good decision would be an understatement. Pop also deserves credit for giving extended minutes to Poeltl and leaning on DeRozan in the third when he got it going. The coach’s defensive gameplan against Jokic, which is constantly shifting within games to keep him guessing, worked well. All in all, outside of that stretch in the second period, the Spurs were the much better team and Pop is pushing a whole lot of correct buttons.

LJ Ellis