The season series, which San Antonio won 2-1, didn’t offer much insight into how their first-round playoff series will go once it starts Sunday at the AT&T Center.
“I don’t think we played San Antonio the way we should have played them or the way we’re capable of playing them this whole season,” Carmelo Anthony said. “This is going to be the first time that everybody’s playing together.”
Anthony was suspended when the Spurs won 92-83 in January. In their second matchup in February, Allen Iverson was just back from an ankle injury and scored only nine points, 16 below his average with Denver at the end of the season. San Antonio won 95-80, holding Iverson and Anthony to 24 points combined.
And their season finale last Wednesday? Neither team had anything to gain and both rested their top players in Denver’s meaningless 100-77 rout.
“It’s irrelevant, isn’t it?” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said about the season’s games. “We have to play the team that comes on Sunday.”
And that team has been one of the NBA’s hottest in recent weeks. Denver went a franchise-best 10-1 in April.
“We went and beat a lot of playoff teams on the road in April,” Denver coach George Karl said. “And our mental toughness got better. Finishing off games got better. Our defense got better. I’ve said all along I think if we defend and pass, we’re pretty good.”
Popovich agrees, saying the Nuggets are playing their best basketball of the season. Of Iverson, whom the Nuggets acquired in December from the Philadelphia 76ers, Popovich laughed: “We’ve never stopped him, have we? I think he likes seeing us, he scores well.
“He’s one of those players that you’re not going to stop because he’s a great one,” Popovich said. “And if we can make him work hard, that’s always the goal. And if you make someone work hard maybe they’ll have a night where they don’t make everything.”
Putting The Answer and Anthony together makes it that much tougher.
“I think they’ve really turned a corner this end part of the season—the last 10, 15 games. They’ve got some incredible pieces to their team,” the Spurs’ Tim Duncan said. “They’ve got what could be the defensive players of the year and two of the top scorers in the league and a whole cast. They’re going to be an incredible challenge.”
But the Spurs’ league-leading defense has proven it can handle just about anything. They have a few offensive weapons, too.
Tony Parker, who will see a lot of time matched against Iverson, noted that though Iverson’s speed will be hard to contain, “He’s going to chase me, too.”
And Denver may have to work hard to crowd the lane to keep Parker and Manu Ginobili from driving to the basket.
“We know they’re going to do that,” Ginobili said. “But I think we’ve got enough weapons to make shots from the outside. … I think we’ve got all three important parts of the offense”—penetration, outside shooting and an inside game.
And the Spurs are hoping that drawing Denver in the first round bodes well.
Two years ago, with a 59-23 season record, they beat Denver 4-1 in the first round on their way to the 2005 title. The Spurs also won it all in 1999 and 2003. The Nuggets haven’t won a playoff series since 1994.
This season the Spurs ended up two games short of 60 wins. It would have been the fourth time the franchise had reached the milestone. After Milwaukee snapped San Antonio’s season-high 13-game win streak in March, the Spurs went 12-6 the rest of the season. They lost only 10 games at home.
“They’re a great team, probably the most consistent throughout the year,” said Marcus Camby. “They’ve been overshadowed by the sort of season the Mavericks have had. But you don’t overlook them.”
Speaking of Dallas, San Antonio isn’t overlooking Denver, but the Spurs are hungry to erase the memories of their last playoff game, an overtime loss to the Mavericks in Game 7 of last season’s Western Conference semifinals.
“They’re a special team that knows who they are probably better than we do. There will be situations where their experience and maturity will help them,” Karl said. “But there also will be some situations where the stress and pressure and expectations of (the Spurs winning another) championship will help us.”
At least Denver hopes so.
“It’s just going to be tough, but I just feel good about us,” Iverson said. “I feel confident in my team and my coaching staff. I know it’s going to be hard, but it’s something that we can accomplish.”