Quick Grades: Spurs @ Nuggets – Game 2, 2019 NBA Playoffs

San Antonio had a great chance to grab a 2-0 lead in their first round series against the Nuggets. Unfortunately, despite building 19-point leads in both halves, the Spurs couldn’t hold on and now head south to the Alamo City with the series tied at 1-1.

With 8:28 remaining in the second quarter, the Spurs led 42-23. The Nuggets responded by scoring the game’s next 11 points to get right back into the thick of things. At the 4:28 mark of the third quarter, San Antonio had rebuilt their lead after a Rudy Gay free throw made it 78-59. But Denver, a team that has shown a remarkable ability to erase large deficits this season, went on a 16-2 run before the end of the period to once again make it competitive.

The Spurs were able to fend the Nuggets off in the fourth until two Jamal Murray free throws with 4:50 remaining gave the home team the lead for the first time since the first quarter. San Antonio kept fighting until Murray hit back-to-back three-pointers to turn a three-point lead into a nine-point cushion with 2:12 left on the clock. 

On one hand, it’s disappointing that the Spurs fumbled an opportunity to get a stranglehold on this series. If they end up falling in the first round, this 114-105 defeat will go down as the turning point of the series. On the other hand, the Spurs played really well in Denver and there were long stretches where they simply appear to be the better team. Play like that in the AT&T Center and this young Nuggets squad would be hard-pressed to win one on the road. 

LaMarcus Aldridge C
Aldridge definitely played better than he did in Game 1 but he still has plenty of room for improvement. The Spurs brought him off the block more in Game 2 and he ended up getting a lot of good looks — he just wasn’t accurate enough. He was physical driving to the rim and when in the paint, which led to a game-high ten free throw attempts. Aldridge was a willing passer when doubled and took care of the basketball. Defensively, his boxing out was excellent, he was solid in the block and supplied average help out on the perimeter. All in all, Aldridge did enough in most categories but the Spurs needed him to shoot better and, more specifically, they needed him to be more demonstrative in the second half (he as only 2-for-6 from the field after halftime).

DeMar DeRozan A
DeRozan did his job; it was great to see him play at this elite level in the postseason. Offensively, he was aggressive while staying within the offense. His efficiency was outstanding: 31 points on 19 shots with only one turnover. His assist numbers were low but DeRozan was routinely making the right passes and his playmaking was at an adequate level. Defensively, he made a few errors but his energy was good, he was strong on the boards and he was quick in rotations. In the fourth quarter, DeRozan was productive (10 points on 4-for-6 shooting) yet smartly didn’t try to do too much. The Spurs lost this game but they had to love what they got from DeRozan on the road in the playoffs. 

Derrick White B+
White is now 14-for-21 for the series after another stellar showing of marksmanship. The Nuggets were sagging off of him and the second-year guard made the home team pay. That said, Denver was playing him so loosely that it took away from his passing lanes, which led to San Antonio’s starting point guard going without an assist in 32 minutes of action. To make matters worse, White was looser with the ball than usual, totaling three of the team’s ten turnovers. Defensively, I thought he was impressive during the first three quarters, outside of a few mental blunders. He did well challenging ball-handlers and shooters, while helping hold Jamal Murray to 0-for-8 shooting in the game’s first 36 minutes. In the fourth, though, Murray had 21 points on 8-for-9 shooting and White was on the court for 19 of those points. It wasn’t all White’s fault — Murray caught fire and began hitting difficult looks — but he does deserve some of that blame. 

Bryn Forbes D
After ten fantastic games to end the regular season and another impressive performance to begin the 2019 NBA playoffs, Bryn Forbes came crashing down to earth in spectacular fashion. His shot-selection was shaky, as Forbes needlessly forced a few contested looks. His ball-handling was a liability and his decision-making was far from crisp. On defense, Forbes was jumpy and out of position far too often, particularly when his man went backdoor. For the Spurs to win this series, they can’t afford Forbes to get so handily outplayed by Gary Harris like we witnessed tonight. 

Jakob Poeltl A-
Poeltl’s impressive mobility was on full display. Nikola Jokic drew Poeltl out to the three-point line and the Austrian never looked like a fish out of water. Instead, he moved his feet really well and oftentimes beat Jokic to the spots he wanted to go. Poeltl also protected the rim really well and his level of ferociousness on the defensive glass was great to see. On offense, Poeltl wasn’t nearly as effective as he was on the other end but he set good picks, kept his head up and knew where to pass the ball. 

Rudy Gay D+
Outside of the second quarter of Game 1, Gay has been a disappointment thus far. On defense, he’s not showing that he can deal with Paul Millsap and the other physical Nuggets in the paint. Gay’s rebounding numbers look adequate but he’s getting pushed around too much in this series to date. Offensively, he’s out of rhythm, isn’t taking good shots and is trying too hard to create one-on-one opportunities. Gay’s passing has been helpful but he needs him to start playing stronger and smarter. 

Marco Belinelli D+
Offensively, Belinelli was fine. His movement was causing chaos and he was assertive with the ball. I thought he missed a few passing opportunities but Belinelli wasn’t a problem on offense. Defensively, though, he was a train wreck. His transition D was pathetic, most notably. Then again, he was really, really bad in halfcourt sets as well. When the Nuggets attacked Belinelli, the result was almost always a wide open shot. Yes, Belinelli is always a sub par defender but tonight he took his uselessness on that end to a disturbing new level. 

Patty Mills C+
While Mills’ energy was much better than Belinelli’s on defense, the results were similar. When the Nuggets went at Mills, there was nothing much the Australian could do but try to get out of the way. To his credit, he pressured the ball well at times and at least attempted to get back in transition. Offensively, Mills was solid. He led the Spurs in assists, was doing more ball-handling than normal and his decision-making was good outside of a couple ugly exceptions. Oh, and Mills hit a couple big jumpers in the fourth quarter that kept the Spurs in the lead. 

Davis Bertans C
Bertans is doing a lot of things right: his rebounding is really good, he’s taking the shots he needs to take and he’s moving his feet well out on the perimeter. However, he’s getting bullied by Millsap to the point that Bertans is basically unplayable if Millsap is on the court. Considering that Bertans is usually the team’s floor spacer late in games, that’s an unfortunate turn of events for the Spurs. If Bertans can’t show an ability to combat Millsap’s muscle, he’ll only be a bit player this series. 

Pop C
Pop’s adjustments between Game 1 and Game 2 were masterful and a leading reason why the Spurs were able to build big leads in this contest. Defensively, he mixed up the timing and the location of the double-teams on Jokic and that obviously disrupted Denver’s attack. Offensively, he put Aldridge in positions where it was difficult to effectively double him. He also got the ball to DeRozan in sets where it made the Nuggets think twice abouts ending help. In hindsight, though, he could have done more to keep the Spurs from succumbing to Denver’s fourth quarter surge. When the Nuggets got scorching hot from the perimeter, the automatic double-teams on Jokic need to end. When Belinelli is getting roasted, he needs to sit or be hidden better. And if neither Gay nor Bertans can defend Millsap, Pop needs to think long and hard about ending games with Poeltl on the court. Pop also had a dumb technical foul with 3:41 remaining in the fourth quarter after he got mad that the ref didn’t call a timeout fast enough. However, while Pop could have done better, hindsight also tells us that the Spurs mostly lost because Murray went nuclear in the fourth quarter — coaching didn’t have much to do with those 21 points on 8-for-9 shooting.

LJ Ellis