DENVER — NBA fans, meet the Denver Nuggets.
Nuggets, say hello.
After a 54-28 regular season tucked away in Mountain Standard Time and a first round of the playoffs relegated mostly to NBA TV, the Denver Nuggets advanced to the second round with Saturday’s 90-86 win over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7.
There, the Nuggets and their uniquely talented Serbian big man, whom most fans who don’t live adjacent to the Rocky Mountains have only heard about, will demand the attention of NBA fans nationwide.
Big Spurs rally, bizarre ending
Saturday’s win didn’t come easy.
It required Denver to fend off a San Antonio rally from a 17-point deficit. And it included one of the more bizarre sequences to end a game in recent memory.
Nuggets in control until game’s final minutes
The Nuggets controlled Game 7 early, opening a 23-13 first-quarter lead that saw the Spurs stifled on defense, missing 11 of their first 12 field-goal attempts.
Neither team shot well, with Denver’s lackluster 3-point shooting allowing the Spurs to mount a late rally, cutting the Nuggets’ lead to 88-86 late in the fourth quarter.
Despite shooting just 2-of-20 from 3-point distance, the Nuggets managed to build a 67-50 lead in the third quarter of what felt like a victory party in the Pepsi Center.
But Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets went cold late, allowing the Spurs to close the gap, injecting a jolt of anxiety into a raucous crowd that had spent most of the game convinced that a trip to the second round of the playoffs was in hand.
LaMarcus Aldridge forgets to foul Jokic
The Nuggets held on after a bizarre sequence that saw the Spurs fail to foul in the game’s final seconds, allowing Denver to run out the clock.
Jamal Murray hit the last bucket of the game, a 14-foot floater off one foot over LaMarcus Aldridge to extend Denver’s lead to four points with 36.8 seconds remaining.
When Torrey Craig blocked DeMar Derozan’s layup at the other end, Jokic secured the rebound with 25.6 seconds left and the Nuggets took their time crossing half court.
Content to run clock, Jokic held on to the ball above the 3-point line once he crossed half-court as Aldridge defended him. But Aldridge didn’t foul, allowing the clock to tick down.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich walked onto the court and implored Aldridge to foul. But the Pepsi Center was roaring, and Aldridge didn’t notice his head coach’s urging.
Patty Mills, guarding a streaking Murray, also failed to foul Jokic when he brushed by the Nuggets center while chasing his man.
one of the biggest reasons why earning home court still matters: so crazy loud in Pepsi Center at the end of Game 7 none of the Spurs heard the coaching staff screaming for a foul. Game ends. Season over. pic.twitter.com/mz4XoEHfM0— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) April 28, 2019
Why didn’t Aldridge foul in a situation that demanded a play to stop the clock?
“Didn’t hear him,” Aldridge said of Popovich. “Crowd was loud. I missed it. That’s it.”
Asked if he knew how much time was left, Aldridge didn’t expound much.
“Yeah, I just didn’t foul, and that was it,” he said. “I should have. I didn’t. There’s nothing else to say about it.”
Popovich, in typical Popovich fashion, didn’t have a lot to say about the game’s final seconds.
“Obviously, he didn’t hear anybody because he didn’t foul,” Popovich said.
As for the rest of the Spurs who didn’t step in when Aldridge neglected to stop the clock?
“L.A. was far up, top of the key,” DeRozan said. “I’m not sure if they heard him. We were so down low, we couldn’t leave our man, go foul and give up a layup. Before we tried anything, it was a little bit too late.”
Too late it was. Murray missed a 3-pointer as the shot clock ran down. When DeRozan secured the rebound, there was one second remaining, and the Nuggets’ victory was secure.
Coming-out party for Jokic, Nuggets
While Aldridge’s gaffe gained a lot of attention, it wasn’t the deciding factor of the game or the series. A foul, while giving the Spurs a chance, would have likely only extended time in an inevitable Nuggets win, one that was led by their All-Star center.
With the win, Jokic, the Nuggets markedly unathletic big man who can do everything on the court but jump, will have his first chance to truly shine on the national stage. And by everything but jump, that means everything.
Jokic can shoot, pass, run point and rebound. He’s a triple-double threat every time he steps on the court, as he showed the Spurs on Saturday with 21 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists.
Jokic joins Magic, LeBron
According to the NBA, Jokic joins elite company with LeBron James and Magic Johnson as the only players to record multiple triple-doubles in their first trip to the playoffs.
And Jokic, of course, accomplished the feat in the first round.
He can defend too. Just ask Aldridge, the Spurs’ All-Star forward who regularly found his path to basket blocked by Jokic’s 7-foot, 249-pound frame on Saturday.
Aldridge struggled form the field in Saturday’s decisive game, hitting 6-of-16 shots in route to 16 points.
Nuggets’ defense clamps down
The Spurs as a whole shot 36.5 percent from the field while connecting on 6-of-23 3-point attempts (26.1 percent).
The Nuggets weren’t much better, hitting just 39.8 percent of their field goals. But stifling defense and big games from Jokic and Murray — who tallied 23 points and hit multiple clutch shots down the stretch — were enough to allow Denver to survive and advance.
“It was really simple,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “The reason we had missed the playoffs two years in a row was because we were a bottom-five defensive team. An elite offensive team, but we couldn’t guard anybody.
“We were last in 3-point defense last year. So to go from 30th to first in 3-point defense is remarkable.”
The Nuggets will need to lean on that perimeter defense against one of the best backcourts in basketball when Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum lead the Portland Trail Blazers into the Pepsi Center for Game 1 on Monday.
It will be a matchup of strength on strength that will put the Nuggets to the test as they play in the second round for just the second time since 1994.
It will be worth watching. But the Nuggets have been worth watching all season.
The rest of the nation outside of the Mountain time zone is about to find out why.
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