Nuggets hoping to ace first playoff test in years

DENVER, CO – DECEMBER 28: DeMar DeRozan #10 of the San Antonio Spurs handles the ball against the Denver Nuggets on December 28, 2018 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)

This series is a pair of contrasts, with the Nuggets making the playoffs for the first time since 2013, while the Spurs haven’t missed the playoffs in more than two decades.

That doesn’t mean the Nuggets will necessarily suffer from stage fright and the Spurs will remain poised at all times, though. Although only Paul Millsap brings significant playoff experience in Denver, this team has kept a high profile all season. The Spurs’ leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, must battle his past playoff demons that partly led to the Toronto Raptors trading him to San Antonio last summer.

It all starts with Nuggets center Nikola Jokic and whether he can roust the troops with timely passes and assorted trickery, which makes him the most unique post player in basketball. “The Joker” recently said the Nuggets still have a chip on their shoulder from missing out on the playoffs last season on the final day. Well, their time has finally come.

If Jokic and Jamal Murray are causing fits, this will be a very frustrating series for the Spurs. They’ll have to throw double teams at one or both of them and risk getting exposed by others like Millsap or Will Barton.

Regular-season series

Dec. 26, 2018 – Nuggets 103 @ Spurs 111
Dec. 28, 2018 – Spurs 99 @ Nuggets 102
Mar. 4, 2019  – Nuggets 103 @ Spurs 104
Apr. 3, 2019  – Spurs 85 @ Nuggets 113

Three things to watch

1. Can Gary Harris flip the switch and become a factor for Denver?

It’s been a perplexing and disappointing season for the Nuggets’ guard, who has taken a step back in his development. Harris was groomed for a star role, yet injuries and mediocre play have intervened. His scoring average is down nearly five points and he seems trapped in a fog at times.

2. How can the Spurs counter the size advantage by the Nuggets?

The only functional big man the Spurs can throw at Jokic, Millsap and Mason Plumlee is All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge. It’ll be up to Jakob Poeltl to chip in whenever possible. The best tactic for the Spurs may be to create offensive mismatches and force the Nuggets to play small ball.

3. Will the Nuggets sweat much if Jamal Murray isn’t clicking?

No, because of Malik Beasley and Monte Morris. These unsung guards have impressed all season and at times were Denver’s best backcourt. Beasley and Morris give Denver a depth advantage against a team that traditionally brings a deep rotation.

The number to know

13.1 — The Nuggets were 13.1 points per 100 possessions better at home than they were on the road. That was the league’s biggest home-road differential. The second biggest (10.5 points per 100 possessions) belonged to the Spurs, who were 1-11 on the road against the other seven Western Conference playoff teams, allowing almost 120 points per 100 possessions over those 12 games.

For Denver, the bigger difference in its performance was on offense; it scored 7.9 more points per 100 possessions at home (116.0 — third best in the league) than they did on the road (108.1 — 16th). For San Antonio, the difference was more about its defense; it allowed 7.6 fewer points per 100 possessions at home (106.7 – 10th) than it did on the road (114.3 – 25th). The home team won all four games in the season series, though only one of the four games — the Nuggets’ 28-point win on April 3 — wasn’t close.

— John Schuhmann, NBA.com

The pick

There’s plenty riding on this series for the Nuggets. They ripped through much of the season, staying either near or at the top in the West. Losing in the first round would be a major letdown. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is gonna make them sweat it out. Nuggets in 6.

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