DENVER — What a difference a few quarters make.
In Game 4, the Denver Nuggets trailed the San Antonio Spurs 34-22 in the first quarter and looked in imminent danger of digging a 3-1 series hole.
Since then, they’ve outscored the Spurs by 44 points over the course of seven series-shifting stanzas that could redefine their entire season.
The Nuggets rallied in that Game 4 in San Antonio for a 117-103 win to save the series on Saturday.
Spurs outmatched, out-hustled in Game 5 loss
On Tuesday, they followed up with a dominant showing in front of an eager Denver crowd hungry for the home team’s second trip beyond the opening round of the playoffs since 1994.
The 108-90 win gave the Nuggets a 3-2 series lead and put the young team in the daunting position of trying to close out a playoff series on the road against the veteran Spurs and their five-time NBA champion coach, Gregg Popovich.
It’s a notion that seemed laughable early in Game 4. But after turning the series around in dramatic fashion, the Nuggets look ready for the challenge.
Newbie Nuggets make big leap from early struggles
“I think we’ve grown up a lot since Game 1,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said after the game. “I know we talk about it all the time, how young we are, but it’s a fact. … We finally won a first quarter. We finally won the rebounding battle. So we’ve grown up a lot, and we still have a lot more.”
There was a sense as the Nuggets built a 53-42 halftime lead on Tuesday that they would be vulnerable in the second half to a more experienced team led by a master technician in Popovich, whom Malone had compared favorably to chess icon Bobby Fischer.
This was the first venture into the postseason for the Nuggets’ core, and adjustments were surely coming from the other side.
Denver closes deal with huge 3rd quarter
But Denver opened the second half as hot as it had ended the first, extending its lead to 65-44 in the first three minutes of the half, forcing Popovich to call a timeout to stop the bleeding.
On defense, the Nuggets pressured the Spurs into mistakes, leading to precise sets and easy buckets on the other end.
When the Spurs eventually found their footing to go on a 10-0 run late in the third to close a 28-point deficit to 77-59, the Nuggets looked to their All-Star big man to close the deal.
Nikola Jokic hit a pair of free throws with 1:12 left in the quarter before closing out with 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to slam the door shut on the Spurs and punctuate the Nuggets’ evolution from shell-shocked playoff newbies to a team that knows how to win in the postseason.
The fourth quarter would be a victory lap.
Something had changed.
Jokic talks and walks
“I think I talked a lot during this game,” Jokic said. “I don’t usually talk that much. I think we have a great opportunity just to defend home court and get the [series] lead.
“Now we just need to win one more game. Sounds easy, but it’s like that.”
Jokic was his normal potent self, filling the box score to the tune of 16 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. But this was far from a one-man show.
Jamal Murray gets hot
Jamal Murray found his stroke early and didn’t lose it en route to 23 points, seven assists and four rebounds while hitting 4-of-9 from 3-point distance. It’s his second straight hot shooting night of the series after he hit the Spurs with 24 points on Saturday.
It’s a far cry from his 8-of-23 effort in Game 1’s loss at home that saw him miss all six of his 3-point attempts.
“I think everybody just settled down,” Murray said of the Nuggets finding their shot and their confidence as the series moved forward. “First playoff experience, everybody’s anxious, excited. So that kind of led into our shots. We’re settled down now, and we’re making them pay with a lot of open shots.”
Four other Nuggets scored in double figures as Denver shot 50 percent from the field while hitting 14-of-33 (42.4 percent) 3-point attempts.
Nuggets clamp down on White again
The Spurs couldn’t keep up, shooting 41.1 percent from the field while hitting 7-of-24 from distance. LaMarcus Aldridge was San Antonio’s most consistent threat, logging 17 points and 10 rebounds on 7-of-13 shooting from the field.
Derrick White — the breakout star early in the series who lit up the Nuggets in Game 3 with 36 points — was a relative non-factor for a second straight game. He finished with 12 points and 2 assists and was hobbled with foul trouble after picking up his fourth foul one minute into the third quarter.
The Nuggets made a point to contain White after his Game 3 breakout, inserting defensive stopper Torrey Craig into the starting lineup to focus on DeMar DeRozan, freeing up Gary Harris to focus on White.
The adjustment worked for a second straight game on Tuesday and will ultimately be looked upon as the turning point in the series if the Nuggets go on to win.
“I think the way you disrupt Derrick White, or anybody for that matter, is being physical, getting into him,” Malone said. “Yes, you can point to changes in the lineup, putting Gary on him. I think Gary Harris is one of the more underrated defenders in the NBA.”
Game 6 will be a different beast
Things look a lot different for Denver than they did just four days ago. A green No. 2 seed that looked in danger of being unceremoniously ousted from the first round by a more experienced, pedigreed team now looks like the team that’s been here before.
But Game 6 will represent a whole new challenge. A close-out game on the road against a Popovich-led squad on Thursday will be nothing like the home comfort of Tuesday’s Game 5.
If the Nuggets pull that one out, then they can say that they’ve arrived.
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