PLAYOFF SERIES: Western Conference, first round; Game 1.
The Spurs will have to attempt to cool off the hottest team in the league when they meet the Nuggets in the opener of a first-round series.
While San Antonio used its trademark consistency to pile up 59 wins, Denver’s season has been anything but consistent. The Nuggets got off to a slow start under coach Jeff Bzdelik and then Michael Cooper before catching fire under George Karl.
Denver is 32-8 since Karl took over on Jan. 27. The Nuggets won 25 of 29 games after the All-Star break by employing an uptempo style that has resulted in plenty of easy baskets for high-energy players like Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin.
“They are so aggressive and so fast—they get a rebound and they just look ahead,” San Antonio guard Manu Ginobili said. “And they are so defensive-minded, so fast break-minded because they are convinced that they can do it and they can score easy points.”
Karl’s presence has invigorated point guard Andre Miller in particular. Miller averaged 9.4 assists over the final 12 games with Denver averaging 27 as a team in that span.
“When you’re winning, the point guard is doing his job,” Miller said. “When you’re losing, it comes back to the point guard. I try not to get caught up in that stuff. I know what I bring to the team and I know my teammates have confidence in me.”
The point guard duel between Miller and San Antonio’s Tony Parker will be one of the featured matchups. Both players like to push the ball and create open looks for teammates.
“He’ll break down the defense, a lot of pump fakes, so you just have to try to contain him and not allow him to run the team, especially in transition,” Parker said.
Denver is 35-5 when scoring 18 points or more on the fast break.
“In order for us to win, we have to force turnovers, make plays, get deflections and rebound the ball,” Miller said. “If we can do those things, we can be competitive.”
The Spurs are hoping that Tim Duncan will be healthy enough to bring his outstanding all-around game to the court. Duncan missed 12 games in March and April due to a right ankle sprain before returning to see action over the final four games in an attempt to get back in shape.
“Maybe we can steal a game because of that and get the home court on our side,” Karl said.
Duncan averaged 21 points and 11 rebounds in the Spurs’ two wins against the Nuggets this season. He did not play in San Antonio’s losses.
“If Tim is healthy, I think we have the best team in the league,” Parker said. “But we have to show it. We have to prove it every night.”
The Spurs will be without center Rasho Nesterovic, who is nursing a left ankle sprain, and guard Devin Brown, who has a herniated disc. Newcomers Nazr Mohammed and Glenn Robinson are being asked to pick up the slack.
“They’ve come a long way,” Duncan said. “They’re both basketball players and they understand the flow of the game. They understand what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Denver reached the playoffs for the first time in 10 years last season and lost to Minnesota in five games. The expectations are a little higher because of the strong play after the break.
“We’re still the underdog,” Karl said, “but I think we’re an underdog that can make some noise.”
San Antonio has been one of the favorites to win the title since Duncan joined the team in 1997 and are in search of a second title in three seasons. Last year, the Spurs lost in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals by dropping the final four games.
“I think that we are more ready and in better shape than last year,” Ginobili said. “I see that the team is more complete now with more players in each position and they can all contribute and do better.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Nuggets - 7th seed. Spurs - 2nd seed.
PROBABLE STARTERS: Nuggets - F Anthony, F Martin, C Marcus Camby, G Miller, G DerMarr Johnson. Spurs - F Bruce Bowen, F Duncan, C Mohammed, G Ginobili, G Parker.
TEAM LEADERS: Nuggets - Anthony, 20.8 ppg; Camby, 10.0 rpg; Miller, 6.9 apg. Spurs - Duncan, 20.3 ppg and 11.1 rpg; Parker, 6.1 apg.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Tied, 2-2. Denver became one of only three visiting teams to win at the SBC Center with a 90-87 win on March 12 behind 23 points from Martin and 21 from Anthony. The Nuggets cracked the 100-point mark only once in the four games and their two wins came with Duncan out of the lineup. Anthony averaged 17.8 points against San Antonio, but shot just over 30 percent while being defended primarily by Bowen.