Grades: Spurs vs. Nuggets – Game 4, 2019 NBA Playoffs

The Spurs played really well in the first three games of their first round series against the Nuggets. In the first quarter of Game 4, San Antonio’s strong play continued. But then, unfortunately, the wheels fell off.

To begin the game, the Spurs were attacking on offense and swarming on defense. They were getting good shots, while Denver was struggling to generate any offense. At the end of the first period, the good guys were up by 12 points, 34-22.

To begin the second quarter, Pop used the same lineup (Poeltl, Bertans, Gay, Belinelli and Mills) that in Game 3 resulted in a 16-0 run for the Nuggets to start the second. Once again, things quickly went wrong at the beginning of the period, as Denver scored ten of the quarter’s first 14 points.

A few minutes later, the starters came back in … and things only got worse. The attacking offense was suddenly discombobulated and passive. The swarming defense was flatfooted and soft. The rhythm the Spurs played with for much of the series’ first 13 quarters vanished.

After getting outscored 32-20 in the second quarter, the doldrums continued after halftime. Denver took advantage, outscoring San Antonio 37-25 in the third quarter.

In the final stanza, the Spurs never got within ten points; whenever they got a scintilla of momentum, the Nuggets answered with a big shot or a key play of their own.

Denver’s 117-103 victory ties the series 2-2 and sets up a momentous Game 5 in Denver on Tuesday night. 

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LaMarcus Aldridge

In the first quarter, LaMarcus Aldridge was more productive than he’s been all series. Playing all 12 minutes, he scored 13 points and pulled down five rebounds on 5-for-9 shooting from the field. He took advantage of the Nuggets not sending many double-teams his way and looked primed for a big night. But it didn’t happen. Aldridge became increasingly passive as the game progressed, despite Denver playing him mostly one-on-one. Most glaring was his lack of physicality; even when he had a smaller man on him, Aldridge was too apt to settle for a finesse shot. With Aldridge not dominating, it allowed the Nuggets to stay close to the three-point shooters. All in all, 24 points in 29 minutes is usually good enough — but it wasn’t on this night. Defensively, I didn’t have much issue with how Aldridge played. He defended Paul Millsap rather well and was good enough when switched onto Nikola Jokic. 
Grade: B
Summary: Aldridge’s stats look strong but the Spurs needed more to make the Nuggets pay for their defensive decisions. 

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DeMar DeRozan

Like Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan was really good in the first quarter. He was 3-for-3 from the field and 2-for-2 from the line in ten and a half minutes and had four assists to go with his eight points. His passing was excellent, his court vision was impressive and he was taking the ball strong to the hole. But, like Aldridge, DeRozan failed to do enough the rest of the way. With the Nuggets playing him mostly straight up, DeRozan had the green light to try to carry the team — particularly when everyone else was struggling. Instead, he was 4-for-10 the rest of the night and only had one more assist. On defense, he lost shooters too often and his help was oftentimes a step slow. DeRozan’s night ended a little bit early after he got ejected for throwing the basketball at the direction of a referee. Thankfully, his long range accuracy leaves a lot to be desired because if that ball would have been five feet closer to the ref, DeRozan could be facing a suspension. That was the latest example of the 29-year-old guard letting his frustration get the better of him. He’s not the type of player who plays well when he’s mad so DeRozan really needs to work on keeping his cool. 
Grade: C+
Summary: DeRozan started with a bang and ended with a fling. 

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Derrick White

Welp, I guess it’s not time to put Derrick White in the Hall of Fame just yet. A game after dazzling the world with a career-high 36 points, White came crashing back down to earth. He came out of the gates sloppy and never truly regained his composure. He was making mental mistakes on both ends. On defense, Jamal Murray took advantage of White’s questionable decisions to pour in 24 points on 8-for-14 shooting. On offense, White looked to be pressing. The Nuggets showed him more respect than they did in the first three games of the series and White struggled to make correct decisions. Let’s hope he can bounce back with some more magic in Game 5. 
Grade: D+
Summary: White’s trip to Springfield will have to wait. 

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Bryn Forbes

Comparatively, Bryn Forbes played pretty well. Before garbage time, the Spurs had only three made three-pointers and Forbes tallied two of those (Aldridge had the other). Forbes was out of control sometimes but with most of his teammates in a daze, his activity was welcome. Defensively, he was about as good as he gets. He stayed with Gary Harris well and got back in transition consistently. The only area on defense Forbes struggled was the timing of his double-teaming, as the Nuggets usually saw his help coming and easily found the open man. 
Grade: B
Summary: Forbes held up his end of the bargain. 

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Jakob Poeltl

Despite dealing with intermittent foul trouble, Jakob Poeltl played 30 minutes. (After playing 30-plus minutes once in the regular season, he’s done it twice in the last two games.) All in all, I was pleased with how the big Austrian played. Offensively, he was assertive when rolling to the rim, consistently crashed the glass, authored heady passes and finished well in traffic. With the intensity turned up a notch or two in the postseason, it’s great to see Poeltl able to hang on the offensive end. Defensively, he didn’t have as much success in Game 4 as he had in Game 3. Jokic missed some shots against him but generally the Nuggets star was able to do what he wanted (Jokic not turning the ball over despite his deluge of touches was a leading reason for Denver’s offensive success). Poeltl’s help defense was okay but it’s been better. Rebounding-wise, though, he was stout on the defensive glass and he was one of the few players playing with enough physicality on that end. 
Grade: B+
Summary: Poeltl continues to look like a building block going forward. In the short term, though, dealing with Jokic is a handful. 

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Davis Bertans

After hardly playing in Game 3, Davis Bertans led the bench in minutes. The good: His burgeoning ability to make moves off the dribble paid dividends here and there. Although he didn’t grab any rebounds, he was boxing out with muscle and the Spurs grabbed almost all available defensive rebounds when Bertans was on the court. The bad: Bertans turned down a couple open three-pointers, which really hurt because the Spurs weren’t getting many decent looks from downtown. He’s usually great at running the court and hunting for open space … but he’s just not doing much of that thus far in the playoffs. And when he is getting open, he’s too often passing it. While Bertans is a better-than-you-think defender and has some other skills, if he’s not shooting and making threes, his value is limited. 
Grade: C
Summary: Bertans did a few small things but not enough big things. 

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Patty Mills

After a really bad showing in Game 3, I can’t complain about Patty Mills’ production in Game 4. He went to the line eight times (he was fouled on three-pointers twice), which is his most visits to the charity stripe since the last time the Spurs won the championship. With no one around him willing to take control of the reins, Mills even started attacking the paint and finishing at the rim — that’s not something we see too often out of him. He made a few good passes, didn’t turn the ball over and he successfully upped the tempo when he was in the game. Defensively, he did enough flailing and flopping to disrupt Denver at times. All that said, the fact that Mills has only one three-pointer in four playoff games is really hurting the spacing of the second unit. 
Grade: B+
Summary: Mills shouldered more of the burden than usual on offense and did enough on defense to avoid being too much of a liability. 

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Rudy Gay

Out of nowhere, Rudy Gay suddenly can’t hold onto the basketball. Whenever the ball is in his hands, he’s either fumbling it away, preparing to fumble it away or making an iffy decision. After a putrid 0-for-7 showing in Game 4, he’s now 6-for-28 (21.4%) in the series outside of Game 1’s second quarter. Gay being unable to produce is even more damning that it appears on first glance. Why? Because it allows the Nuggets to dictate the rotations. If Gay isn’t taking advantage of his athleticism against big players or taking advantage of his size against small players, Denver doesn’t have to think twice about deviating from whatever is working best on the offensive end. Gay’s value to the Spurs is his ability to exploit mismatches. He’s not doing that right now, at all, and it has left a large, gaping void. In addition to his poor offense, Gay was almost as equally bad on defense. Ouch. 
Grade: F+
Summary: No word yet if the Easter Bunny is going to hide the egg Gay laid. 

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Marco Belinelli

Marco Belinelli is taking bad defense to a new level. He entered the postseason as a top three worst perimeter defender in the NBA. Against the Nuggets, he’s a few steps below that. I don’t know if he’s injured (remember, he missed some time late in the regular season) or whether the increased intensity is too much for him to handle. To make matters worse, Belinelli was terrible on offense, too. If he wasn’t shooting an unnecessary leaner, he was missing a wide open teammate. Belinelli’s only basket was a three-pointer deep into garbage time. Going forward, if he can’t play defense better than a dead man, the coaches have to look elsewhere. 
Grade: F
Summary: Ugh. 

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Donatas Motiejunas

With Poeltl in foul trouble and Aldridge needing a rest, Pop dusted off Donatas Motiejunas for some real minutes. He didn’t embarrass himself. The Lithuanian bigman obviously has good hands and good touch on the offensive end. However, it’s also obvious that he’s not capable of providing much on defense. He’s too stiff and his reactions are too slow for him to have a chance of defending the Nuggets pick-and-rolls — and Denver was well aware of that fact. 
Grade: Inc.
Summary: Motiejunas was ready when called upon. 

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Pop

I didn’t like that Pop failed to learn his lesson from Game 3 and started the second quarter of Game 4 with the same lineup that previously resulted in a 16-0 run. The Nuggets went on another run … a run that never ended. Obviously, the loss wasn’t on Pop for trotting out the Poeltl, Bertans, Gay, Belinelli and Mills lineup but that lineup shouldn’t hit the floor the rest of the series. I disagreed with Aldridge never touching the hardwood in the fourth quarter. Sure, the Spurs were down but with two days off until Game 5, putting him out there in hopes of a miracle wouldn’t have hurt anything. Despite those questionable decisions, every coach in the league would struggle to find a way to win a game in which the opponent is red-hot from three-point range (15-for-30 in non-garbage time), your team can’t hit a shot from deep (3-for-13 in non-garbage time), the opponent only turns it over seven times and your two leading bench scorer don’t make a basket (0-for-10 in non-garbage time). 
Grade: B-
Summary: Pop’s coaching was far from great but he didn’t have enough players playing well to have much of a chance to make a difference from the sidelines. 

Looking ahead: That was a disappointing collapse after how well the Spurs played in the first quarter. The good guys appeared to be on their way to a commanding 3-1 lead in the series … and now they’re back to square one.

The hope going into Game 5 on the road is that the Spurs handily outplayed the Nuggets in Denver in the first two contests of the series outside of the fourth quarter of Game 2. Rekindle that level of play, get some more players along for the ride and go out and get another one in enemy territory.

LJ Ellis