SAN ANTONIO – The effort traveled. The urgency might’ve stayed back on Bourbon.
Coming off Wednesday’s riveting overtime win in New Orleans, the Nuggets fought but fell to the Spurs, 123-111, in Thursday’s grueling back-to-back affair. On the sixth game of their seven-game odyssey, Nikola Jokic logged his third consecutive triple-double, yet his 22-point, 13-rebound and 10-assist night couldn’t help his team overcome a lackadaisical start to Thursday’s contest.
“They were shooting threes really good and they were living in our paint, so we need to at least pick one,” Jokic said after the loss.
The Nuggets will wrap up their longest road trip of the season Saturday against these same Spurs, who hammered Denver for 58 points inside.
Fellow big man Aaron Gordon was outstanding in perhaps his most physical game of the season. Though disappointed with the loss, he made no excuses regarding Denver’s circumstances.
“It’s part of the NBA,” Gordon said of the schedule. “… We’re not the only team that has that.”
He finished with 25 points and six rebounds, his strength inside serving as Denver’s best answer to San Antonio’s size.
But the Spurs dominated on the glass, 54-33, and enjoyed a healthy, 47-28, margin on bench scoring. Derrick White paced San Antonio with 23 points.
“Hubie Brown had a great line years ago,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He’s coaching his team in New York, and his team wasn’t rebounding. His team wasn’t getting back. He called a timeout, he says, ‘Where the hell are you? You’re not here to rebound, you’re not here to get back.’ That’s what I felt like tonight. I felt like Hubie Brown.”
Now 12-13 on the season, the Nuggets can still win the road trip with a win on Saturday.
The Nuggets finally snapped their disconcerting streak of starting third quarters flat. After returning from the locker room early and running layup lines to get moving again, Denver met San Antonio’s fight in the third quarter. Jokic leaned heavily into his recent pet play – a high-low action with Gordon – and the Nuggets found pay-dirt.
Playing a physical, imposing brand of basketball, Gordon poured in 12 points in the third quarter alone. His motor on the offensive glass was matched soon thereafter by numerous hustle plays from his teammates on the defensive end. Facu Campazzo’s incessant energy gave the Nuggets a spark, including one particular chase-down swipe against Spurs forward Keita Bates-Diop. With Jokic on the bench, the Nuggets headed to the fourth down 100-90.
After re-watching film from Wednesday’s sublime overtime win in New Orleans, Malone was more effusive in his praise of Jokic.
“To be a clutch player, you can never get rattled, you can never get rushed and hurried,” Malone said before the game. “And I think Nikola is the definition of that.”
Legendary Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, a longtime Jokic fan, raved about the generational superstar.
“It is so funny, I love the guy,” he said. “It doesn’t look like he’s doing anything. He’s not going fast. He’s not jumping high. It’s kind of Larry Birdish in a way. Talk about skills and anticipation and decisions. He’s fantastic. Great hands. Scores in every which way. Involves all his teammates. He is the head of the snake for sure. … He is probably the best passing big man we have seen in a very long time.”
And yet, not even Jokic’s gifts could supersede his team’s sluggish start.
Up 18 points with 4:54 left in the first half, the Spurs threatened to pull away even before the break. A quick 10-2 spurt, ignited by Monte Morris and Gordon, gave the Nuggets life.
From there, Jokic took over in much the same way he did the night before in New Orleans. He battered San Antonio’s interior defense, closing the half with eight straight points. The Spurs’ 74-65 halftime lead didn’t feel as daunting with an engaged Jokic and a hungry starting unit around him. Jokic headed to the visiting locker room with 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
That he was so dominant, and yet the Nuggets trailed at halftime, was an indictment on the team’s bench. In the first half alone, Denver’s reserves were outscored 34-9.