SAN ANTONIO SPURS (35-22)
at DENVER NUGGETS (30-26)
Tip-off: Tuesday, 10:30 p.m. ET
Line: NA, Total: NA
There’s a chance that Tuesday’s matchup between the Spurs and Nuggets is a preview of the first round in the Western Conference playoffs.The San Antonio Spurs' ceiling without SF Kawhi Leonard has been made clear: With no Kawhi, they can't beat the Warriors. It was made obvious in last year's Western Conference Finals, when they were swept after losing Leonard late in the first half of Game 1. And it was made obvious again on Saturday night, when the Spurs fell 122-105 at Oracle Arena. In its defense, San Antonio was not just without Leonard on Saturday, but also his backup in SF Rudy Gay and its two primary point guards in Dejounte Murray and Tony Parker. Leonard and Gay remain out indefinitely, while Murray, Parker and now PF LaMarcus Aldridge will all be questionable for Tuesday night's game in Denver, the second end of a back-to-back for the Spurs after they play in Utah on Monday night. The Nuggets, on the other hand, will have had two full days of rest after a 123-113 win in Phoenix on Saturday. Oddly, after Tuesday's game, the Spurs' next game will also be at Denver, on Friday. The Nuggets will play in Milwaukee on Thursday before returning home to take on San Antonio once again.
Without Leonard, the Spurs offense has run primarily through Aldridge. In 29 minutes against Golden State he was efficient—but far from dominant—scoring 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting to go with five rebounds, four assists and two blocks. With Aldridge out, Cs Pau Gasol and Joffrey Lauvergne figure to see increased minutes, but the team will also go small a greater percentage of the time. Gregg Popovich is famous for his ability to plug just about anyone into his lineups without seeing too much of a drop-off, but having to generate scoring without Leonard, Gay, Aldridge, Murray and Parker seems just about an impossible task. PG Patty Mills started at the 1 on Saturday but only played 18 minutes. It was rookie PG Derrick White out of Colorado who played the majority of minutes at point guard for the Spurs, notching career highs in points and minutes with 11 and 28, respectively. White is big for his position at 6-4, and is known for his dangerous outside shot. Spurs starting SF Kyle Anderson is also known for his point guard-like vision, but he's relatively towering at 6-9. So even without some of their best players, the Spurs still have excellent passing and length on the perimeter. Anderson was San Antonio's best player against the Warriors with 20 points, six rebounds, four assists, two blocks and three steals, and the only Spur to post a positive plus-minus (+2) in the 17-point defeat.
The Nuggets traded young PG Emmanuel Mudiay at the deadline, ridding themselves of a player who simply wasn't developing in Denver. In exchange, they got a veteran point guard in Devin Harris who will help guide to its first playoff appearance in five years. In his Nuggets debut, Harris put up a solid outing with nine points and two steals in 22 minutes in a 123-113 win at Phoenix on Saturday. Of course, he's only the second-most important Harris on this team, as SG Gary Harris is at the center of the squad's young core. Both he and PG Jamal Murray are likely glad to be rid of Mudiay, who was taking away from their time as shooters and ball-handlers in the backcourt. The duo was relatively quiet against Phoenix, combining for 25 points. (They average about 34 between them.) Instead, it was SG Will Barton who went off, dropping 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting to go with five rebounds and five assists. SF Wilson Chandler, who has largely played lame basketball next to his younger teammates this season, looked uncharacteristically energetic with an out-of-nowhere season-high 26 points. The team's real star is C Nikola Jokic, and he played liked it in Phoenix. Jokic flirted with a triple-double before finishing with 21 points, nine rebounds and eight assists. Veteran PF Paul Millsap is set to return from injury early next month, and everyone in Denver has to be encouraged by how the team has stuck in the playoff race without him.