Grades: Spurs vs. Nuggets – Game 6, 2019 NBA Playoffs

After a pair of demoralizing losses, the Spurs bounced back in grand fashion with a 120-103 victory over the Nuggets to force a Game 7. Considering how handily San Antonio was outplayed the previous seven quarters, I was proud of the way the good guys played tonight. The necessary energy was apparent from the opening tip, they withstood Denver’s runs with resolve and battled their way to a resounding win. Well done.

The Spurs led for much of the first three quarters but couldn’t quite grab control of the contest. The Nuggets, to their credit, were persistent and Nikola Jokic, specifically, was phenomenal. That might have been one of the ten best performances against a Pop coached team in the postseason. 

Thankfully, San Antonio was able to thrill their home fans by seizing momentum in the waning minutes of the third period. Following a Jokic basket that cut the Spurs lead to 88-85 with 1:25 remaining in the quarter, the good guys rolled off a 19-2 run over the next six and a half minutes to basically put the game in the books.

Again, I thought this was a great win that exhibited a lot of character. It would have been easy to activate Cancun mode but, instead, the Spurs got a measure of revenge and forced a do or die Game 7 on Saturday night.

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LaMarcus Aldridge

LaMarcus Aldridge did great work setting the tone early for San Antonio. In the first half, he had 18 points and seven rebounds on 7-for-12 shooting from the field in 21 minutes. He was physical early on, didn’t resort to his fadeaways and rolled to the rim with authority when it was needed. His scoring slowed in the second half but he made up for it with wise passes and running the court hard to open up space for shooters. Defensively, I thought he was iffy one-on-one and his help wasn’t too noteworthy. That said, he was an absolute animal on the boards, as he ripped down a handful of hotly contested rebounds.
Grade: A-
Summary: Aldridge wouldn’t allow the Spurs to get off to a slow start. 

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DeMar DeRozan

This was a tale of two completely different halves for DeMar DeRozan. He began the game setting the table for his teammates. In the first half, he was constantly knifing through traffic to create open looks. Outstanding decision-making led to seven assists by halftime. In the second half, the Nuggets sent less help his direction so DeRozan instead called his own number. He finished the final two quarters with 20 points on a scintillating 10-for-11 shooting from the field, including a handful of well-time, momentum-saving shots. After such a disappointing Game 5, DeRozan turned it completely around. He was measured, smart and uber efficient. Defensively, he was active and went in among the trees to corral a few tough caroms. 
Grade: A
Summary: DeRozan put together a brilliant game and gave the Spurs exactly what they needed. 

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Derrick White

It wasn’t a flashy outing for Derrick White but a few lucky bounces here and a few defensive plays there and he was definitely an asset on this night. Offensively, he was pushing the pace more than usual and did a good job of spreading out Denver when they tried to blitz him (more on that below). While he was a bit tentative, he also authored a number of key plays when it counted the most. Defensively, his help was really good — against both size and shooters. His individual D wasn’t as tight as usual but he did well enough. White found himself in first half foul trouble after a rare moment of losing his composure on the defensive end but he regrouped and seemingly got better and better as the game progressed. 
Grade: B
Summary: White aided the cause on both ends. 

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Bryn Forbes

Compared to the last couple games, I really liked Bryn Forbes’ shot-selection. He was more under control and didn’t force up contested looks just because he hadn’t shot the ball in a while. Forbes was patient and it paid off with an efficient 12 points on eight shots. Defensively, he had his moments but he also had his mistakes. Forbes was jumpy at times and lost his man at other times but he competed well enough to avoid hurting the team too much on that end. 
Grade: B
Summary: Forbes didn’t deviate from the gameplan and it paid off. 

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Jakob Poeltl

Chalk it up as another rock solid performance by Jakob Poeltl. Defensively, I have to dock him a little bit for allowing Jokic to go nuclear but, then again, Poeltl wasn’t getting much help and Jokic was on fire. While he was also slow off his feet at times when going for rebounds on the defensive end, Poeltl’s help-defense was timely and he was extremely active. The Austrian’s mobility and coordination continues to be a big plus on that end. On offense, Poeltl set some vicious screens, was a beast on the offensive glass and his deceptively high basketball IQ was on display by way of his passes and split second decisions. Also, his hands were sure and his quick shots in the lane allowed him to finish in cramped quarters.
Grade: B+
Summary: San Antonio’s most consistently positive force in this series kept at it. 

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Rudy Gay

Oh, hey, I remember you. Welcome to the playoffs, Rudy Gay. Following a nightmarish first five games, the Spurs ultimate X factor finally got on track. (How much of an X factor is Gay? Consider this: The Spurs are 0-3 in the playoffs when Gay scores 10 or few points and 3-0 when he scores more than 10 points. In the regular season, they were 16-15 when he scored 10 or fewer and 32-19 when he scored more than 10.) On offense, Gay did what we’ve been waiting for him to do: exploit mismatches. The Nuggets struggled to defend him and Gay also made them pay with three-pointers when they left him alone in the corners. As valuable as Gay was offensively, he didn’t have the same level of success defensively. He was outmuscled and outmaneuvered too easily and Gay was also weak on the boards, particularly in terms of boxing out. That said, considering his mighty struggles on offense to begin the postseason, I’m excited by what I saw from Gay this evening. 
Grade: B+
Summary: The Spurs are a completely different team when Gay is Gay. 

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Patty Mills

The good: Patty Mills had some slick passes off the dribble and led the Spurs bench with six assists. His decision-making in transition was (mostly) on point and he was once again much better than usual when driving the ball to the basket. Defensively, he was responsible for the team’s entire sum of steals and he exhibited some vigor when caught in a mismatch. The bad: Is it me or is that wrap on his shooting thumb getting bigger and bigger? Either that or I just noticed it more as Mills hoisted missed three-pointer after missed three-pointer. I wasn’t a fan of his shot-selection and he made a few questionable decisions in the halfcourt sets. And despite his effort on D, Mills remained a liability that the Nuggets sought out and attacked.
Grade: C+
Summary: Mills did some things right but the Spurs can’t have him go 0-for-7 from three in Game 7. 

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Marco Belinelli

Even better. Marco Belinelli took a step forward in Game 5 and took another step forward tonight. Gone was his hesitation when he was open. He let it fly and his controlled yet chaotic movement was difficult for the Nuggets to handle. I was even pleasantly surprised defensively, as Belinelli put up a fight on a handful of possessions and wasn’t as quick to succumb to doormat status when isolated against. 
Grade: B+
Summary: Belinelli hasn’t hit double-digits in the postseason yet but he’s trending in the right direction. 

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Pop

This had to be a difficult game to prepare for because the Spurs have probably been the better team for the majority of the series but they’ve been annihilated as of late. How much and what do you change? As it turned out, Pop’s decisions look masterful in hindsight. First off, he shortened the rotation to eight players, staggered DeRozan and White to keep a playmaker with the bench unit, and resisted the urge to mess with Poeltl’s minutes in order to try to supercharge the offense. Gameplan-wise, Pop had Aldridge mix in more pick-and-rolls and deep post-ups to get him in an attack frame of mind, had White (and DeRozan to some extent) bait extra defenders and draw them away from the action to create 4-on-3 advantages once he passed the ball (and that ultimately led to open three-pointers), and had White push the pace more than usual. On defense, Pop was allowing Jokic to work mostly one-on-one — only sending double-teams from the weakside once he started dribbling. With strongside defenders staying on shooters, the result was Denver struggling to get open looks from three-point land. In a game where he could have easily done too much tinkering, I thought Pop did a great job of changing just enough to confuse the Nuggets while allowing the Spurs to try to recapture the success they had earlier in the series.
Grade: A
Summary: Easily Pop’s best coached game of the series. 

Looking ahead: Game 7. It’s going to be a tough one but at least the Spurs have given themselves a chance to pull off the upset by bouncing back and trouncing the Nuggets in Game 6. It shall be interesting.

LJ Ellis