Lack of rebounding, defense allows San Antonio to slip past Denver Nuggets

Dec 9, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Devin Vassell (24) reacts after a dunk during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Nuggets coach Michael Malone had no idea where his players were on Thursday night against the Spurs. After giving up 37 points in back to back quarters in the first half, Denver found itself in a hole trailing by 18 points.

The game was within reach a few times when the Nuggets cut the lead to just five points with about six minutes left in regulation. They weren’t able to sustain the momentum and lost 123-111. Denver was outscored 58-44 in the paint and out rebounded 54-33.

“We weren’t rebounding and we weren’t getting back,” Malone said. “That means we were just hanging out in no-man’s land. They were the aggressors from the beginning. They had us on our heels. Their bench dominated us.”

In the Nuggets defense, they did just play an overtime game in New Orleans the night before and played three games in the last four nights but Malone, per usual, didn’t want to make any excuses for his guys.

“Those are the challenges that every team in the NBA faces,” Malone said. “It’s not just us the Denver Nuggets and we have to be mentally tough to fight through that and not to use that readily available excuse. I don’t buy into that and tomorrow will be an off day so hopefully on Saturday we’ll play with energy and effort.”

Despite the loss, Nikola Jokic had another solid game registering 22 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists. That marked his third straight triple-double and his 62nd career triple-double. Aaron Gordon was also in his bag with 25 points on 9 of 12 shooting from the field and six rebounds. Gordon credits a lot of his success in Denver to Jokic and said playing with him has set his game to a different level.

“Well, how he reads the game first off,” Gordon said. “Just his mind, his IQ is the best basketball IQ out there on the floor. That being said he’s 7-foot-something, big, soft hands, good touch, and his ability to make people better around him so that’s really the mark of a great player and he does it, when you play with him you just feel better.”

Malone was happy with the effort of both Jokic and Gordon and Facu Campazzo, who had 12 points off the bench but was disappointed with the rest of his team. Denver’s bench was outscored 47-28.

“We need a collective effort,” Malone said. “We need everybody firing on all cylinders for us to have a chance with all the players that we have out.”

For the Spurs, Derrick White scored 23 points and Dejounte Murray added 20 points, eight rebounds and nine assists. Lonnie Walker IV went off for 21 points off the bench. It was an all around effort for a team that only won nine games this season.

They got off to a 10-2 start to open the first quarter and led the entire game. They extended the lead to ten points midway through the quarter and with 4:25 left, the Nuggets got to within three. San Antonio responded with a 6-3 run to go up 37-29.

Denver’s defense was nonexistent as it watched a 13-point lead turn into an 18-point lead in a span of three minutes in the second quarter. Malone called a timeout and that’s when Gordon started to get things going along with Monte Morris who hit consecutive threes. With 2:53 left, the Nuggets were back within ten points. Jokic kept the momentum going and scored eight straight points to cut the Spurs lead to four. San Antonio responded by closing the quarter on a 5-0 run to take a 74-65 lead at halftime. The Spurs scored 74 points in the first half which was the highest scoring half of the season for them.

The Nuggets still had some drive left in them in the third quarter despite having to fight for every bucket. Gordon stayed attacking the paint scoring 11 points to get Denver within striking distance. Davon Reed added a nice spin move to cut the Spurs lead to six and then Bones Hyland cut the lead to four with 1:50 left. San Antonio wasn’t going away and responded with a 6-0 run to close the quarter and take a 100-90 lead.

Walker IV opened the fourth with five points to extend the lead to 13 and Denver countered with four 3-pointers in a row. The Spurs still led 107-102 with 7:22 left but the Nuggets still had a chance to close this one out. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich called a much needed timeout and got his guys back on track to close it out on a 16-9 run and win it 123-111.

The Nuggets face the Spurs one more time on Saturday before heading back home to Denver for the first time in over two weeks.

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