Working against a mathematical disadvantage, the Spurs couldn’t muster the offense to counter a beautiful performance from Nikol Jokić and the Nuggets in Game 5.
After falling behind twice in its first playoff series since 2013, the Nuggets defeated the Spurs soundly to take a 3-2 series lead Tuesday night. While Denver holds just a one-game edge in the series — which will head back to San Antonio on Thursday — the most recent stretches haven’t been particularly close. Having seen their shooting luck turn, the Nuggets cracked the Spurs’ shaky defense in Game 4 and thoroughly dominated six consecutive quarters over the last two games.
Game 5 featured a balanced and beautiful scoring effort from Denver’s best players. Jamal Murray and Gary Harris combined to outclass San Antonio’s backcourt while Will Barton finally provided some punch off the bench. Nikola Jokić was characteristically brilliant. The Spurs simply didn’t have enough with which to counter. DeMar DeRozan floated for long stretches as LaMarcus Aldridge couldn’t establish himself in places with which he felt comfortable.
San Antonio Spurs
Denver maximized its structural advantages. All season, the Spurs’ offense has succeeded in spite of itself, overcoming archaic shot selection and antiquated stars with elite shot-making and institutional discipline. They shoot 3s less than any team in the NBA, but make them at the highest rate in the league to buoy an offense around DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge’s mid-range fixations. But in the playoffs, some of the advantages that stem from that are mitigated by better scouting and greater attention to detail from opponents. The Spurs attempted only 24 3s, but didn’t sink enough of them to outweigh the inefficiencies of the rest of the offense. San Antonio missed 14 shots at the rim, many of them uncontested, and a 13-8 turnover margin wasn’t large enough to overcome an inefficient shot diet.
Denver, meanwhile, hoisted 33 3-pointers — including a combined 9-of-18 from Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Nikola Jokić — and converted a higher percentage of shots at the rim (and a handful of highly contested floaters). The Nuggets’ shooters won’t be that hot in every game, they give themselves a mathematical advantage just by taking efficient shots and living with DeRozan and Aldridge firing difficult mid-rangers. The biggest difference between the two sides was not in execution — though San Antonio’s offense undoubtedly failed to operate at its standard — but in structure. The Spurs leave themselves with little margin for error, and in Game 5, the errors exceed that margin — and then some.
Nikola Jokić brought it… again. Questions of Jokić’s playoff fitness abounded throughout Denver’s season — it was unclear if the slow-footed center could adequately defend playoff offenses, or if his YMCA-style passes and post-ups would translate against more engaged defenses. Some of those concerns remain — the construction of San Antonio’s roster is such that many of Jokić’s weaknesses can be masked — but thus far, Jokić has been every bit the star in the playoffs he was in the regular season.
That’s due in large part to the consistency and steadiness of his impact. Jokić has topped six assists in every game of the series and 20 points in all but one. He has scored efficiently and, more importantly, been a reliable hub for everything Denver does on offense. On Tuesday, he followed up one of his best games as a pro with 16 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists, and looked as active on defense as he has since the opening weeks of the season. He sprinted the floor, slid with ball-handlers and protected the rim as well as could be expected for 33 energetic minutes, all while asserting himself as both a passer and as a scorer. He led a particularly joyous string of passing possessions late in the second quarter and played the entirety of the third frame.
Greater challenges lie ahead for Jokić and the Nuggets, should they survive the first round. Certain strategic mismatches may expose them down the line, but they’ve proven that the heightened pressure and intensity of the playoffs won’t.
Denver’s backup center minutes remain shaky. Mason Plumlee played his worst game of the series in Game 5, and didn’t duck a particularly high bar. The Spurs have repeatedly targeted him in the pick-and-roll and Plumlee hijacked the offense on multiple occasions Tuesday to loft aimless hook shots into oblivion. In a game Denver won by 18, it was outscored by nine in 16 minutes with Plumlee on the floor. Jakob Poeltl, who started the game next to Aldridge but effectively played backup center, was also minus-9 in 26 minutes for the Spurs.
A canny passer and athletic defender, Plumlee emerged as a solid backup to Jokić this season, but has fallen off in the postseason. Alignments featuring both centers have cratered on offense in limited minutes this series, and Michael Malone may consider playing Paul Millsap as a small-ball 5 when Jokić rests. After pulling Plumlee in the second quarter, Malone briefly surrounded Jokić with Murray, Harris, Will Barton and Torrey Craig, which allowed Denver to push the tempo and add versatility on defense. Those sorts of lineups could be more common in Game 6.