It all came down to Game 4.
The Denver Nuggets would not be mathematically eliminated if they lost to the San Antonio Spurs, but falling into a 3-1 hole after four games against Gregg Popovich might as well be a death sentence. That means that the Nuggets were in a must-win situation on Saturday, April 20th.
Because of that fact, Malone made a starting lineup change and removed Will Barton, who had struggled mightily all series, and inserted the defensive-minded Torrey Craig.
No longer did the Nuggets struggle to make shots or shrink in the spotlight like they did in the first three games of the series. In Game 4, the real Denver Nuggets arrived and pummeled the Spurs 117-103 to tie up the series at two wins apiece.
The first quarter was a mirror image of every other first quarter Denver has played this series. Their offense was not controlled or calculated while their defensive energy was somewhat high, but their execution of the gameplan was basically non-existent.
The Nuggets failed to score more than 22 points in any first quarter this series, and that fact continued to hold true as Denver went into the second quarter trailing 34-22 after allowing the Spurs to control every single facet of the game from the opening tip until the first quarter buzzer sounded.
Then, to start the second quarter, Will Barton, in his new bench role, came in and hit a big 3-pointer which was followed by a coast-to-coast layup by Monte Morris. That is when, as Popovich has done all series, the Spurs took a timeout to try and slow Denver’s momentum.
For once, it did not work in the Spurs favor as Denver strung together a few stops and also received an offensive spark from Barton, who dished off a beautiful pass to Jokic in the pick and roll for a bucket and nailed a pull-up triple at the top of the key — his second 3-pointer of the game.
That was the spark Denver needed. From that point forward, the Nuggets energy level seemingly doubled. Jokic began killing Spurs defenders inside, Denver’s defensive intensity skyrocketed and suddenly the Nuggets had taken the lead. After an embarrassment of a first quarter, Denver was much more ready to play in the second quarter.
Other than Barton’s inspired play, the Nuggets biggest boost came from their defense, which was outstanding in the second period. Denver finally stopped fouling, they were contesting every shot, Millsap was drawing fouls, and Craig was flying around the court like a pinball in a pinball machine.
That combination allowed Denver to enter halftime tied 54-54 with the Spurs despite the fact that their first quarter was an abomination. It seems like this Nuggets team realized that they are more talented than the Spurs and finally began playing like it.
The Nuggets came out of halftime as if they smelled blood in the water. Suddenly, they were the aggressors and were no longer being reactive. They were forcing the Spurs to bend to their will and because of that, Denver slowly, but surely, extended their lead.
The catalyst for Denver’s change in mentality came from Jokic, who set the tone with his assertiveness and aggression. He was attacking relentlessly from every spot on the floor and also defending as well as he possibly could. Denver needed their best player to lead them after three tough games and Jokic arrived in Game 4.
The Nuggets never slowed up for the rest of the third quarter and, even after their starters mostly exited the game, Denver’s reserves continued to attack with the same tenacity as their counterparts. Craig continue to cause chaos, Barton provided a spark, and Morris kept the Nuggets stable and controlled.
By the time the third quarter ended, the Nuggets outscored the Spurs by 12 in the quarter and carried a 91-79 lead into the fourth and final frame.
The Nuggets knew that the Spurs were not going to fold and came out with an incredible amount of attention to detail and with the intention of putting the Spurs away as quickly as they could. This was the no-nonsense version of this young Nuggets roster and it is that mentality that propelled them to a 15-point lead.
Then, as expected, adversity struck. With Jokic on the bench, Denver suddenly found themselves losing their grip on all of the positive momentum they gained as the Spurs went on a 6-2 run to bring San Antonio back within 11 points with just under eight minutes left in regulation.
Malone had seen enough and put Jokic back into the game which immediately led to Denver jumping out to a 7-0 run to put the Nuggets up 18 points. Denver, after almost losing their control of the game, were able to put the Spurs away early as San Antonio began to burst at the seems.
DeRozan, who disagreed with a call, decided to launch the basketball back at the official and was ejected which allowed the Nuggets to put the game on ice earlier than expected. Still, the Spurs kept battling but it was not enough.
After struggling to play their brand of basketball for the first three games of the playoffs, the Nuggets finally found their form and went on to win 117-103.
Once the final buzzer sounded, the Nuggets were led by none other than their All-Star center Nikola Jokic, who put up 29 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists in a whopping 38 minutes played. Murray also had a great game — his best of the series — by accumulating 24 points and six assists while shooting 8-of-14 from the field and 3-of-5 from three-point range in addition to only having one turnover. Barton, after his demotion, played a fantastic game as he put 12 points on three-made 3-pointers. Additionally, Craig was everywhere and added in 18 points and eight rebounds in his first career playoff start.
Now the Nuggets will head back to the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center for Game 5 with a 2-2 split after winning Game 4 in San Antonio.