By Daniel Paiz
The Denver Nuggets are in search of some Mile High Magic with the #2 seed after failing to secure the West’s top seed. Finding that magic won’t be easy, as legendary head coach Gregg Popovich brings his San Antonio Spurs to town this Saturday. This best-of-seven series will tell us if Denver is ready to make a deep playoff run.
There are multiple factors that need to go right for Denver to make it out of this first round series. Teamwork, consistency, and stepping up in big moments are the traditional big picture keys. So, let’s go through a few of the specifics that will help.
Who needs to step up
This team revolves around Nikola Jokic, and so his consistency is everything. But after Popovich plans for Jokic, other players will have to take the lead. It’s easy to look at Jamal Murray or Gary Harris, but now that it’s the postseason, Paul Millsap and Isaiah Thomas have to show why they were signed.
Millsap had a number of postseason runs with the Atlanta Hawks back when they were at the top of the Eastern Conference. That experience and leadership are critical to this team. Thomas’ experience with Boston is also invaluable. Neither of these guys are the obvious leaders, but starting in the locker room, the sideline, and on the court this has to change in Game 1.
Murray and Harris also have to be those guys that create defensive problems for the Spurs. “The Blue Arrow” can get hot and shoot the lights out. Murray was the top scorer in four games against the Spurs at 19.8 points a game, but he hasn’t been as consistent after the All-Star break. Harris also hasn’t been that solid, although he’s also been competing for playing time with this deep Denver bench.
Harris only has two games under his belt against the Spurs; it’s hard to say what his impact will be. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Malik Beasley get a bit more playing time to start this series, as he was second behind Murray at 19.3 points a game. That hopefully challenges Harris to step up and assert that he will still be the starting SG next season.
What’s the Mile High game plan?
Coach Mike Malone will strategize different ways to get the offense going, and how to slow down the Spurs. There will certainly be a focus on getting Jokic the ball early and often, but that’s not all Malone will plan for. With an opposing coach like Popovich to take on, he’ll have to find who will be the second option if Jokic is inconsistent.
Spreading the floor will help, especially with Monte Morris and Malik Beasley likely leading the second unit. Mixing in these two with Murray, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig should encourage that Mile High offense to flow. Once there’s an offensive rhythm, it’s time to focus on defensive containment.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills are not Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, but they’re the team leaders. Ideally if you disrupt these two, then DeMarcus DeRozan will have to shoulder a larger burden. DeRozan can take a game over and it’s hard to say which Nugget can frustrate the newest Spur. It’s kind of a pick your poison situation; containing DeRozan seems less likely than frustrating Aldridge and Mills.
Fortunately for Denver, their bench far outshines the equally young San Antonio bench. Coach Malone will rely on this to throw a variety of lineups at Popovich. It’s the best coaching weapon Denver has to start this series.
Will the Nuggets’ home court advantage inspire Mile High Magic?
There’s a reason the postseason theme for Denver is ‘Elevate’. The altitude, the depth of the bench, and most importantly, the hometown crowd will be a factor. There’s a reason the Nuggets were a LEAGUE-best 34-7 at home. It’s a tough place to plan for, because anybody for Denver can step up and fill a void.
It’s also a place that the altitude could play a larger factor than experts might initially realize. Let’s stick with that, the home record, and the fan base as the formula that will lead the Nuggets to finding Mile High Magic and winning this first round series.