Grades: San Antonio Spurs vs. Denver Nuggets – Game #66
The San Antonio Spurs stunned the Denver Nuggets on Friday night in the AT&T Center by a final score of 128-120. The Spurs improved to 17-49, while the Nuggets — who have the top seed in the Western Conference — dropped to 46-21.
Early on, Denver dominated. They held a double-digit lead by the middle of the first quarter and led 38-26 at the end of the period. Behind a fiery offensive attack, the Spurs came storming back in the second quarter. At halftime, San Antonio had a one-point advantage, 68-67.
In the third quarter, the Spurs continued battling and were able to extend their lead. Heading into the final stanza, the Silver and Black were out in front 98-93. With three minutes remaining in the fourth period, the Spurs were desperately grasping onto a two-point lead, 118-116. That’s when the Spurs exploded for a 10-0 to put the game to bed.
All in all, it was a very impressive performance. The Spurs competed with vigor on both ends of the court, played a cohesive brand of basketball and made big plays when big plays were needed most.
Spurs vs. Nuggets – Final Grades
Johnson was outstanding in the first half. He had 16 points in 17 minutes and hit 6-of-8 shots from the floor, including 2-of-3 from three-point land. He also had four rebounds and four assists in the first two quarters. He was driving to the rim with power, making decisive decisions and actually playing some intense defense. Johnson’s level of play dipped in the second half but he was still finding ways to help. I thought his defense was pretty good and his work on the defensive backboard was very helpful. On offense, Johnson supplied the Spurs a go-to option and unselfishly found teammates when the defense was overplaying him.
Vassell got off to a slow start but was able to regain his footing in the second half. He was especially good in the fourth quarter, when he had six points, two rebounds and two assists on 3-for-4 shooting. His ability to create under pressure has been getting better and better. Overall, Vassell’s shots look good — he just needs to get in a rhythm again. Defensively, I don’t have much positive to report for his outing against the Nuggets.
I continue to love Sochan’s aggressiveness. He’s coming out of the gates with the confidence and attitude that he’s the main focus of San Antonio’s attack on offense. The results aren’t always pretty and Sochan was extra choppy tonight but the rookie is doing good work on the offensive end. He’s scoring with physicality and finding teammates while running the court with purpose. I also liked his defense tonight and his rebounding was better than usual. Sochan is blossoming before our very eyes; let’s hope this is just the beginning.
Collins struggled offensively in the first half but bounced back by hitting his first two shots after halftime. However, his night came to a premature end when he was ejected from the game for getting into a scuffle with Michael Porter Jr, who was also ejected. Collins reacted after Porter got whistled for a technical foul for taunting, which was an on-brand thing to do for San Antonio’s enforcer. Prior to receiving the ol’ heave-ho, I liked that Collins was stretching the court by shooting threes, I liked his moxy on the boards and I liked his passing. His defense was weak at times but it wasn’t for a lack of effort.
Branham looked like a tired rookie on Friday night. His decision-making was all over the place, he looked a step slower than usual and he was leaving his shots short. Defensively, he was mostly either left in the dust or forced to foul due to being out of position. Branham mixed in a couple strong drives and a few heady passes, so it wasn’t all bad on this night.
McDermott’s offensive outburst in the first half was a vital part of the formula the Spurs used to stay afloat. In the first two quarters, he had 17 points in 14 minutes, while shooting 6-of-7 from the floor and 3-of-3 from three-point territory. McDermott’s shot was even smoother than usual this evening and he was making quick, smart decisions on offense. Defensively, he was nothing to write home about but he was better than usual.
Jones looked like a natural coming off the bench. He supplied an instant surge of vivacity whenever he hit the court. He scored 14 points in 25 minutes by hitting 5-of-7 shots from the floor and led the Spurs with five free throw attempts. Jones’ playmaking was strong against Denver’s second unit and he was a pest on defense. The point guard had a few sporadic bouts of sloppiness but most of his mistakes were due to aggression, which are the types of mistakes that are forgivable.
Bassey was okay-ish. He was decently productive in his 15 minutes and had a few strong plays going against Nikola Jokic, which were notable because the two-time MVP had 37 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. That said, Bassey didn’t really look athletic enough or coordinated enough to hang much longer than he did. The 22-year-old had opportunities to do more than he did but he was instead fumbling, tripping or otherwise bumbling those opportunities away.
Bates-Diop came off the bench for only the second time in the last 19 games. I thought he responded well to the role he found himself in. He remained assertive on offense and hit a key three-pointer in the fourth quarter. He was physical on the boards and determined to get to the rim. Defensively, Bates-Diop was more active and more nimble than usual.
Mamukelashvili didn’t check into the game until the start of the fourth quarter. He then proceeded to play so well that he remained on the court for the entire period. Playing at center opposite of Jokic, Mamukelashvili was excellent on offense. He hit a pair of three-pointers, set solid screens, passed it very well and was physical in the paint. His 11 points in the fourth led all scorers and he also added two assists and four rebounds. In San Antonio’s offense, the optimal center is someone who is smart, can spread the floor and pass — and Mamukelashvili looked like a perfect fit in that role. Defensively, he wasn’t nearly as impressive but he scratched, clawed and was able to do just enough to help the Spurs get a few timely stops.
I mean, yeah, tanking-wise, this wasn’t the greatest outcome … but I loved a lot of what Pop did. Keeping Branham in the starting lineup is the right move; I hope he does that the rest of the regular season. Pop could have easily buried Branham by playing Jones and Graham at point guard but he instead carved out a major role for the rookie. Going with Mamu in the fourth quarter and sticking with him also looks brilliant in hindsight.