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Western Conference First Round – Game 6
No. 2 Denver at No. 7 San Antonio (TNT, 8:10 p.m. ET) -- Seiries tied 1-1
Apr. 13 - Spurs (+5.5) 101 at Nuggets 96 (Under 210.5)
Apr. 16 - Nuggets (-7) 114 vs. Spurs 105 (Over 210.5)
Apr. 18 – Spurs (-4.5) 118 vs. Nuggets 108 (Over 208)
Apr. 20 – Nuggets (+3.5) 117 at Spurs 103 (Over 209)
Apr. 23 – Nuggets (-5.5) 108 vs. Spurs 90 (Under 210.5)

You could make a great argument that the Nuggets have picked up every must-win in this series thus far.

After falling behind following a Game 1 home loss, Denver kept itself out of an 0-2 hole with a huge fourth-quarter comeback. It kept from falling behind 3-1 by snapping a 14-game losing streak in San Antonio at the most opportune time, pouring in 117 points, their second-largest output in over a month.

It’s time to see if the veteran Spurs can follow suit and answer the call when it matters most.

Although All-Star center Nikola Jokic is having a productive series, Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray has been the catalyst in all three victories, fueling the Game 2 surge by scoring 21 of his 24 points in the final 12 minutes. After scoring just six points on 2-for-6 shooting in Game 3, head coach Michael Malone called him out and demanded more aggressiveness and consistency. He scored 24 points in Game 4 and 23 in Tuesday’s big swing game. For the series, he’s shot 53 percent in the wins (25-for-47), scoring at a clip of 23.7 points per game, and is 10-for-29 (34.4 %) in the losses, averaging just 11.5 points and shooting 2-for-11 from beyond the arc.

Does San Antonio have anyone who can similarly drive its team’s success? On paper, there are options. At home, the Spurs are rightfully favored by a 3-spot. It’s time to see how much fight they have.

It appears the Spurs have no choice but to use Jakob Poeltl to counter the size and skill of Jokic, but they’ve got to find a more impactful way to disrupt Murray if they want to get back to Denver for a Game 7. Derrick White has been the x-factor for San Antonio, averaging 26 points in its wins on over 70 percent shooting while managing 13.3 points in the losses, which includes a really rough past two games. Malone’s tweak has involved utilizing Gary Harris on White more, and the defensive standout has made life extremely difficult.

Since most playoff series ultimately swing on adjustments, my belief that Gregg Popovich would find ways to help the Spurs impose their will over a Nuggets team that lacks significant playoff experience outside of Paul Millsap hasn’t come to fruition. Although Pop had a 9-1 mark in Game 5s dating back to 2013, Malone posted his first victory this deep into a series in his first game. Denver made him look great, leading by as many as 30 points in the fourth quarter. This will be his first close-out game in the head seat. Popovich has a pretty strong record in these too.

The veteran coach quipped that Game 5 was his “best Bobby Fischer” in a nod to Malone saying that he feels like he’s matching wits with a chess grand master. It’s subtle, but Pop sees what’s happening here. The opposing coach has done more to help his team win than he has managed to.

What we’ve found out over the past week is that Malone has more talented options and has been able to press the right buttons himself, earning full credit with tweaks like bringing Torrey Craig into the starting lineup as a better glue guy in this series than Will Barton, who has been liberated to be more of a scorer off the bench. We’ll see if Popovich has a wrinkle up his sleeve since his supporting cast has typically played well at home, increasing his options.

VI NBA expert Kevin Rogers believes in San Antonio’s ability to pick itself up based on its recent body of work.

“The Spurs have done a solid job of bouncing back recently off a mediocre offensive performance. San Antonio has won in six of its last seven instances after being held to less than 100 points, while topping the 120-point mark five times in this span,” said Rogers. “On the season, San Antonio has won three of four times at home off a road loss in which it was held to fewer than 100 points. On the flip side, Denver enters Game 6 with losses in eight of its last 11 games in the road underdog role, while trying to close their first playoff series away from the Mile-High City since the famous upset of the SuperSonics in Seattle back in 1994.”

We’re about to found out how these Nuggets handle prosperity, not to mention getting an early glimpse at the type of killer instinct they’re packing. Denver has certainly proven resilient in this series and will be playing at home this weekend regardless of tonight’s outcome since it will be flying home to either prepare for a Game 7 against the Spurs or a Game 1 of a Western Conference semifinal clash with the Trail Blazers.

The Nuggets haven’t defeated the Spurs in a playoff series since 1985, dropping four straight matchups, and they haven’t won consecutive games at the AT&T Center since Dec. 2009-Jan. 2010. San Antonio managed to upset Golden State in last year’s Game 4 of the first round to avoid being eliminated at home and have only been beaten once on their home floor to end a series since ’10.

Of course, a lot of that Spurs nostalgia has to be put to bed since Popovich is one of the few constant common denominators. Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli have been in a lot of the battles, but DeMar DeRozan’s presence and counting on kids like White, Bryn Forbes and Poeltl as much as they are gives this a much different feel.

De Rozan had a brutal showing in Game 5, looking lethargic and a step slow. He’s got to impose his will to make life easier on teammates and should be the most dynamic scoring threat on the floor if he’s right. The standout guard acquired in the Kawhi Leonard trade was a major catalyst in San Antonio’s inability to be remotely competitive earlier this week, so you can imagine his last 24 hours watching game film and preparing to redeem himself haven’t been pleasant. The Spurs went scoreless for key stretches and he shot just 40 percent, finishing with a series-low 17 points after missing nine of 15 shots. His energy level must improve.

After being significantly outclassed by the Nuggets’ bench in Denver, surrendering 38 points as Barton, Monte Morris and Malik Beasley all hit double-figures, Spurs’ reserves must answer the call at home. That starts with the vets, Mills and Belinelli, but must also feature an explosion from Rudy Gay and solid contributions from the likes of shooter Davis Bertans or rookie x-factor Lonnie Walker, the team’s most athletic scorer. The ‘over’ is up 3-2 in this series, but the ‘under’ had been on a 19-6 run in Denver games since the All-Star break. The ‘under’ was on a 16-5 run in San Antonio’s final 21 regular-season meetings, so there’s a chance both teams revert to their identities in an elimination game and this winds up the lowest-scoring game of a series that has produced at least 197 points in every contest. Game 7 would be played Saturday night in Denver.

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