Jamal Murray posted a game-high 23 points and Nikola Jokic added 16 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists as the No. 2 seed Denver Nuggets beat the No. 7 San Antonio Spurs 108-90 in Game 5 of their NBA Western Conference first-round playoff series Tuesday.
Denver, which made 50.0 percent of its shot attempts, led by 11 at the half and 22 following the third quarter en route to the 18-point blowout.
LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan each scored 17 points for San Antonio, who fell behind 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.
Nikola Jokic's Passing, Defense the Keys to Series Turnaround
The Nuggets looked like they were in serious trouble after losing Game 3, 118-108.
Denver needed to win one game in San Antonio, where it had lost 14 straight games, to have a chance at winning the series.
Sure enough, the Nuggets did just that with a 117-103 win in Game 4, and they followed that up with their 18-point victory on Tuesday.
Numerous reasons exist for the turnaround, which include a starting lineup change, a resurgent bench and some improved backcourt shooting.
Those reasons pale in comparison to Jokic's passing and defense, which have been sensational.
Jokic's passing has always been sharp, but his chemistry with the Nuggets guards was the difference in a 53-42 halftime edge.
Check out the masterful two-man game here, which ended in an easy Murray layup.
Jokic also got a nice hockey assist, which eventually led to a Gary Harris three:
Nick Kosmider of The Athletic gave Jokic a well-deserved shout-out:
However, Jokic's defense was on point all night.
That trend started in Game 4, which Chris Dempsey of Nuggets.com pointed out:
His excellent play only continued in Game 5. Harrison Wind of BSN Denver complimented Jokic's effort:
Harrison Wind @HarrisonWind
You gotta give the Nuggets credit for how well they adjusted their defensive scheme after Game 3, and Jokic is giving about as much effort as I’ve seen him give on the defensive end of the floor all season. He’s still slicing up the Spurs on offense too. Already 7 asts for him.
Jokic notably turned away a Derrick White shot here:
Paul Garcia of Project Spurs pointed out San Antonio's struggles in the restricted area, specifically Aldridge:
If Jokic continues finding Nuggets guards for high-percentage shots and his defense continues to confound the Spurs, then this series will be over in six barring a San Antonio three-point barrage at home.
Spurs' Three-Point Shooting Crucial to Force Game 7
The Spurs led the NBA in three-point shooting percentage during the regular season, which helped catapult them into the playoffs despite a defense that ranked 20th in efficiency, according to NBA.com.
The defense was largely better after the All-Star break, with the team finishing tied for ninth in defensive rating, per NBA.com.
However, the Spurs' defensive efforts have resembled their first-half form over the last two games, and their offense hasn't been good enough to compensate for it.
Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News pointed out the fatal combination:
Meanwhile, former Nuggets great Alex English compared the ball movement between the two teams. One was hard to defend, while the other proved much easier:
Ultimately, San Antonio may need to shake off its three-point shooting slump and get hot from deep to force a Game 7.
That's easier said than done, but the Spurs can't win if the Nuggets stay potent from behind the arc. Denver has shot 29-of-64 from deep over its last two games (45.3 percent).
On the other end, Spurs starters combined to hit only three triples on seven tries Tuesday. The bench shot 4-of-17 from beyond the arc, following up a 5-of-17 night for the team as a whole in Game 4.
The Spurs can't bank on the Nuggets offense, which ranked seventh in efficiency during the regular season, per NBA.com, failing again in this series. San Antonio's defense isn't good enough to hang with Denver in a seven-game series, which has become evident in recent days.
Here's the good news for Spurs fans: San Antonio is a far more efficient outside shooting team than Denver, and that could be the difference in Game 6.
During the season, San Antonio shot a league-best 39.2 percent from deep, while Denver finished tied for 17th by hitting 35.1 percent of its three-point attempts.
The Nuggets scored 21 more points from beyond the arc than the Spurs on Tuesday. If that happens in Thursday's Game 6, the Spurs will likely be going on summer vacation afterward.
Also, the Spurs will be home, where they hit 41.6 percent of their threes this year. The Nuggets are also a poor road team, as they went 20-21 away from the Pepsi Center during the regular season.
The bottom line is the Spurs have no answer for Jokic, and they have no response for Murray if the third-year guard gets on one of his patented hot streaks. Gary Harris is also starting to look like the Gary Harris from last season after he struggled with injuries for much this year.
Therefore, the Spurs may need to outshoot the Nuggets from deep to force a Game 7.
San Antonio will host Denver for Game 6 on Thursday evening.