Midway through the third quarter of what appeared to be an impressive blowout victory for the weary Denver Nuggets, their San Antonio Spurs opposition pulled out a gimmick that left most in the arena and anyone following the game from afar groaning. The Spurs intentionally fouled Nuggets center JaVale McGee away from the ball so as to send him to the free-throw line. McGee, to the great delight of even those without a stake in the contest, calmly nailed his first two free throws. The Spurs weren’t done, though – San Antonio fouled JaVale four more times, and he missed six of his next eight attempts.
Overall, “inert” is probably the best way to describe the impact of fouling McGee in that moment. The Nuggets were up 15 points after McGee hit his first two free throws, and they finished the quarter up 15 points as the Spurs shuffled players on and off the floor in order to distribute fouls. The overall impact, though eventually unsuccessful, seemed to work in San Antonio’s favor. According to coach Gregg Popovich, he not only utilized the strategy because McGee entered the game making just 58.7 percent of his free throws, but because he was attempting to shake up Denver’s flow and rest his players.
The Spurs outscored Denver, for whatever reason, by a 31-22 mark in the fourth quarter, and nearly pulled out the comeback win. Popovich, in talking to the media postgame, described his thought-process (via Pro Basketball Talk) as relayed to us by Denver Stiffs:
"They [Nuggets] were scoring every time. And we were running out of gas, running out of energy. So we figured if we could go up-and-down a few times and not even have to play any defense it might put some fuel back in the tank and it did," Popovich said. "During that period we couldn't knock down a couple of threes and it [the lead] stayed 9, 10, or 11 or whatever. We couldn't get below it [double digit lead] because we couldn't make a shot, but it gave us a little bit of rest and helped us stay in it."
The Spurs were on the second end of one of the tougher back-to-backs that we can remember, losing in Oklahoma City on Monday night before playing the Nuggets in their fifth game in seven nights. Staring down a fourth loss in five of those contests, and with the thin Denver air possibly wreaking havoc on those vaunted Spurs veterans, Coach Pop slowed it all down.
It was obvious even in the moment. Despite the McGee-fueled stand-off scoring-wise to end the third quarter, the game had slowed so significantly that even the two Denver Nuggets broadcasters (Chris Marlowe and Scott Hastings, widely known as two of the bigger homers amongst local play-by-play announcers) acknowledged that the walking up and down the court and extended breaks could work in San Antonio’s favor.
For whatever reason, the Spurs made a game of it in the fourth quarter. Tim Duncan finished off one of the more impressive statistical contests in his career with a 31-point, 18-rebound, six-assist, five-block, two-steal evening, and Patty Mills roared off the pine to contribute 12 fourth-quarter points in the near-comeback. Associating one move with a later result is always an iffy proposition, especially as two of the veterans rested during the third-quarter spell (Stephen Jackson and Tony Parker) didn’t exactly shift the shape of things with their fourth-quarter play, but it’s an interesting aside that is rarely brought up while we focus on percentages and points per possession following a hacking strategy.
It may just have been Denver’s turn to fade. The team played spirited ball for the first 30 minutes or so, but the crew is also in the midst of a heinous early season schedule that will force it to play 22 of the team’s first 31 games on the road. Working at home for just the second time in two weeks on Tuesday, the contest may have felt like a road game in all but name only.
Or, the Denver Nuggets might not be 15 points better than the San Antonio Spurs. One of the great things about this sport is that there are no obvious answers. Outside of the one that tells us that Gregg Popovich is very good at what he does for a living, of course.