The San Antonio Spurs were led by Derrick White’s 36 points to put the Denver Nuggets, the second-seeded team in the Western Conference, in a deep hole they might not climb out of.
There was no dramatic comeback this time, no moment of redemption for the Nuggets. Denver needed late-game heroics to win Game 2 and save their postseason, but on Thursday night in San Antonio they looked outclassed in almost every regard. The Spurs built an early lead behind the steady midrange game of LaMarcus Aldridge (18 points) as Denver’s starters continued to struggle offensively. But the Nuggets bench (led by Malik Beasley’s 20 points), perhaps the team’s greatest strength during the regular season, helped keep it close. None of that mattered, however, as Derrick White was dominant the entire game, leading the way with a career-high 36 points, as well as 5 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and a block. Denver seemed determined to let White drive to his right, and he took advantage behind a lightning-quick first step and an easy path to the rim.
Nikola Jokic seemed focused on helping get his teammates involved early on, passing up some easy shot opportunities, before being more aggressive in his shot selection, finishing the night with a team-high 22 points. But White’s incredible outburst, along with some timely scoring from DeMar DeRozan (25 points) proved to be an insurmountable obstacle as the Spurs jumped to a 2-1 lead in the series.
San Antonio Spurs
Derrick White is unstoppable. Kawhi who? This will be the joke from saltier Spurs fans over the next few days, with White providing stellar perimeter defense and the unexpected scoring that almost erases the stench of Leonard’s departure last summer (not really). And it’s a shame, really, because White’s incredible performance should stand on its own, while providing further evidence that San Antonio’s system is unparalleled in optimizing a player’s strengths. White’s journey to this point was largely unexpected, but he’s put in the work to get here. With his Nuggets counterpart, Murray, mostly a turnstile on defense, White attacked the rim regularly and easily. The playoffs are an annual opportunity for an unheralded player to find a way to shine and White is making the most of his.
Denver’s starters continue to struggled. The Nuggets starting five notched 58 total points, on 21-of-47 shooting. Not great, but not horrifying, either. But what efficiency was there began and ended with Jokic and Millsap (a combined 13-of-21 FGA and 36 points). Murray, Will Barton and Gary Harris wound up with a total of 22 points between them, going 8-of-25 from the floor. With the exception of one brilliant quarter in Game 2, Murray has looked out of rhythm, and Barton, the team’s emotional leader, is bordering on unplayable. This was a backcourt with virtually no playoff experience (save Barton’s seven prior appearances) so you knew going in that they’d need time to adjust to the pressure, but that’s a luxury Denver just doesn’t have. Michael Malone spoke after Game 2 of sticking with Murray rather than risk destroying the guard’s waning confidence. That was endearing to hear, especially in the wake of a huge comeback victory and showed incredible faith that paid off, however briefly. With Murray struggling yet again in every facet of the game, a change might be needed or else Denver’s first taste of the playoffs in years will be a very short one.
DeMar DeRozan had himself a nice second half. At some point in the first half, DeRozan failed to box out a Nuggets player for a rebound, looked around for a foul that never came, and lollygagged his way on defense before throwing an elbow and being assessed a technical foul. DeRozan hadn’t been able to score much (and hadn’t done much of anything else, really) and frustration was mounting. The foul seemed like a pivotal moment, signaling that we’d likely see the worst version of the All-Star guard. Not quite. DeRozan scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half (9-of-18 FGA), and added 4 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals, as well. DeRozan has long had a reputation of shrinking in postseason moments but this bodes well for the rest of him and the Spurs’ chances of going on a deeper playoff run.