DENVER — The Denver Nuggets watched a 17-point lead shrink to two with 52 seconds left Saturday night against San Antonio Spurs, and suddenly Game 7 and what had been an incredible 54-win season was on the verge of slipping away.
And in something not seen very often, Denver’s deafening home-court advantage paid off as the Pepsi Center crowd drowned out Gregg Popovich’s helpless pleas for LaMarcus Aldridge to foul in the final 20 seconds, with San Antonio trailing by four, and the Nuggets held on to win 90-86 in a tense Game 7.
Now the second-seeded Nuggets face Damian Lillard and the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers with Game 1 on Monday in Denver. To get to the second round, the Nuggets rode the brilliance of All-Star center Nikola Jokic, who is thriving on the playoff stage.
In Game 1, Jokic became only the fourth player to collect a triple-double in his first playoff game. And on Saturday, he finished the series by collecting the first triple-double in a Game 7 since LeBron James in the 2016 Finals with 21 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists.
“And win,” Jokic said of his performance while citing the most important statistic for him. “I mean, I think the team expected me to do something, so I’m just going out there and trying to play my best basketball possible. So is it something that I live for? No. It’s just really good stats.”
After watching Jokic average 23.1 points, 12.1 rebounds and 9.1 assists in the series, Popovich was starting to run out of ways to describe Jokic’s rising star.
“He’s magnificent. Magnificent,” Popovich said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
Unfortunately for Popovich, his team had an uncharacteristic failure to execute in the final seconds after an inspired comeback. The Spurs opened Game 7 shooting a horrendous 10-for-45 (22.2 percent) in the first half. In the first quarter, the Spurs’ starters scored only two of the Spurs’ 13 points. That’s the fewest combined points by a starting five in the first quarter of a playoff game in the past 20 postseasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“Tonight was an odd game,” said Popovich, who is in the last season of his contract and did not answer questions about his future. “I thought both teams set basketball back in the first half. I’m surprised people stayed.”
The sellout crowd of 19,725 was filled with anxiety when the Nuggets’ shot 29.2 percent in the fourth quarter, allowing the Spurs to nearly come all the way back from a 67-50 deficit. Bryn Forbes cut the lead to 88-86 on a dunk with 52.2 seconds left, but then Murray, who has been battling leg and shoulder injuries, drained a jumper off one leg over Aldridge.
After DeRozan — who had 19 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists — was blocked, the Spurs did not foul to stop the clock and send the Nuggets to the free throw line to prolong the game. Instead, Aldridge stood in his defensive stance at the top of the key and failed to hear Popovich, who was shouting from the sideline and motioning with his arms in an attempt to get Aldridge to foul. Spurs teammates also yelled to foul.
“Well, obviously he didn’t hear anybody, because he didn’t foul,” Popovich said.
Aldridge said: “Didn’t hear him. The crowd was loud. I missed it. That’s it.”
Point guard Patty Mills had a brief opportunity to foul but didn’t with five personals already. That allowed Denver to milk the clock to 4.9 seconds before Murray (23 points) beat the shot clock with a jumper that missed. By the time the Spurs grabbed the rebound, there were only a few seconds left.
Afterward, Denver coach Michael Malone told Nuggets president and governor Josh Kroenke how he remembered when he took the Nuggets job four years ago how empty the Pepsi Center used to be.
“You looked in the stands, it was witness protection night,” Malone said of the Nuggets’ arena in past years. “There was nobody here. Really … to see where we’ve come in four years, to being a team that won a Game 7 at home and advancing to the second round for the first time in a while, is incredible.
“It’s almost surreal at times.”
Denver president of basketball operations Tim Connelly took guard Gary Harris to the side and had him take a moment to look at the crowd celebrating Denver’s first playoff series victory since George Karl was roaming the sidelines in 2008-09.
“We believe,” Harris said. “We believed all summer. We believed all season. We knew we were a special team. It started after Game 82 last year.”
“I was here when there was nobody in the stands,” Harris added about how far the Nuggets have come to get to this night. “We could barely get anybody in the first bowl … but we’re not satisfied.”