Jamal Murray scored 21 fourth-quarter points and Nikola Jokic posted 21 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists as the Denver Nuggets beat the San Antonio Spurs 114-105 in Game 2 of their NBA Western Conference first-round playoff series Tuesday.
Denver trailed 78-59 with 4:28 left in the third quarter. Murray then led the Nuggets on a furious charge and gave Denver a 101-99 lead with this shot:
After Spurs wing DeMar DeRozan hit two free throws to draw San Antonio within one, Murray assisted on a Jokic bucket before hitting back-to-back threes to put the game away:
As Fantasy Labs managing director Justin Phan noted, Murray nearly outscored the Spurs, who had 23 fourth-quarter points, in the final 12 minutes.
DeRozan led all scorers with 31 points. Teammate LaMarcus Aldridge added 24 points and eight rebounds.
Denver and San Antonio are now tied at one game apiece in their best-of-seven series.
Jamal Murray Must Find Consistency for Nuggets to Maintain Success
Jokic might be the Nuggets' best player, but the team can only go as far as Murray takes it.
Check out these stats from Harrison Wind of BSN Denver, for example:
San Antonio outscored Denver by seven points through the first three quarters, but the Nuggets outpaced the Spurs 39-23 in the final 12 minutes.
The correlation between Murray's shooting prowess and the team's success has been a trend all year. The Nuggets were 12-0 during the regular season when Murray shot 55 percent or better from the field.
However, the Nuggets don't look like a No. 2 seed when the ex-Kentucky star struggles from the field. When the 22-year-old shot below 30 percent, they went 5-7 during the regular season.
The question now is whether he can avoid the rough shooting nights—he went 8-of-23 in Game 1—that have occasionally plagued him.
If his regular-season splits are any indication, Murray will have a tough time on the road in this series. He shot 47.5 percent overall in Denver compared to only 40.0 percent away from the Pepsi Center.
The Spurs have extreme home-away splits as well. San Antonio is an excellent 32-9 at home but a pedestrian 16-25 on the road. Similarly, Denver went 34-7 at home during the regular season and only 20-21 on the road.
As ESPN analyst Ryen Russillo pointed out during Murray's rough stretch Tuesday, the Spurs look like the favorite in this series if Murray can't get it going:
But if he does, then Murray isn't much different than a player who catches fire in NBA Jam. He's capable of doing things that no one has done in years, as ESPN noted:
Denver won't win this series unless Murray's shot falls more consistently. The Nuggets may have a championship-caliber ceiling if it does, however.
San Antonio's Resurgent D Key to Series Upset, Deep Playoff Run
The Spurs mostly played tremendous defense for the first 80 minutes of this series, but the last 16 will stick with San Antonio heading into Game 3.
San Antonio allowed 52 points during that stretch, including 39 in the fourth. Nuggets players not named Jokic committed only two turnovers (the big man had three in an otherwise stellar night). They shot 48.3 percent from the field and went 10-of-24 from deep.
That was a stark contrast from Game 1. Denver couldn't get much going offensively, shooting only 42.0 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from three.
It looked like more of the same early Tuesday, as the Nuggets scored only 21 points in the first quarter. They also trailed 78-59 late in the third frame.
The Spurs' Jekyll-and-Hyde defense is the key to this series and their playoff lives. If the defense excels, a deep playoff run could be on the horizon. If it struggles, Denver will likely move on.
San Antonio's defense looked like it had made a significant turnaround after a poor first half of the year. The Spurs ranked 20th in defensive rating on the season, per NBA.com, but that jumped into a tie for ninth place after the All-Star break.
As a result, San Antonio improved down the stretch, going 15-8 (65.2 winning percentage) after a 33-26 mark (55.9 percent winning rate) before mid-February.
The offense has not been a problem thus far. The Spurs have two perennial All-Stars in Aldridge and DeRozan, both of whom average more than 20 points per game.
Point guard Derrick White, who was a fringe rotation member last year and was slated to be a reserve until Dejounte Murray suffered a torn ACL in the preseason, has shown the postseason stage is not too big for him. He's averaged 16.5 points on 66.7 percent shooting.
San Antonio has one of the NBA's better reserves in Rudy Gay, who made more than half of his shots during the regular season. And as a team, the Spurs are No. 1 in three-point percentage.
But the defense has been the team's Achilles' heel. The Spurs were in the bottom half of the league in opponents' field-goal percentage and three-point defense. They've also given up loads of points in some games, such as when a New York Knicks team that finished 17-65 hung 130 on them in late February.
So, what needs to change?
First, the Spurs have to defend better in transition. Paul Garcia of Project Spurs noted the Game 2 damage:
Second, San Antonio needs to prevent open threes as much as possible. The defense seemed a little late here on this Malik Beasley three, for example:
Third, the Spurs have to find a way to stop Paul Millsap. Nick Kosmider of The Athletic noted how he was doing work in the post:
Millsap finished with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting.
If Murray gets hot, the Spurs can't do much to stop him. And Jokic is one of the best and most versatile players in the league, so the same may go for him.
As such, the Spurs need to take care of business against the Nuggets' supporting cast. That could be the difference between an early playoff exit and a deep run.
The Spurs will host the Nuggets for Game 3 on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET.