If Denver is to advance in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, Tuesday night’s 114-105 victory at the Pepsi Center will likely be remembered as the Jamal Murray game. Denver stared down a 2–0 hole trailing by 19 with 4:28 to play in the third quarter, but the third-year guard scored 21 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter. Tuesday was Murray’s second playoff game and his first playoff moment, saving Denver from a steep climb to the second round.
San Antonio snagging a game in Denver wasn’t a significant surprise, and many assumed a likely six- or seven-game series. The Nuggets lost six of their last 11 and backed into the No. 2 seed, losing by double digits against Indiana, Houston, Golden State and Utah. Even with a perceived talent deficiency, the Spurs could steal more than a game on the back of Popovich smarts and classic San Antonio guile. The prediction manifested itself through the first two games, and the Spurs exposed many of Denver’s flaws at Mile High.
Denver looked dead to rights through much of the first three quarters, struggling in a similar manner to its 101-96 loss on April 14. Nikola Jokic has been muted as a scorer. He hasn’t taken advantage of the Spurs sagging on the perimeter, and he’s often facing two bodies in the post. San Antonio is swarming passing lanes and avoiding the whistle. Denver’s guards and Paul Millsap have been forced to pick up the slack. Defensively, Jokic has been isolated on the perimeter like an elephant on multiple occasions, failing to keep up as the Spurs ping-pong the ball around the perimeter. The first game-and-a-half of the series provided a blueprint to slowing Denver’s symphonic attack. It took a Murray barrage to save the day.
That’s not to say Tuesday’s effort was an aberration. Murray can erupt with a fury shared by few 22-year-olds. He’s a gunner and tough-shot maker with legit range, posting a pair of 40-plus point games in 2018-19. This is the same guy who enraged Kyrie Irving when he gunned for 50 in November. Murray noted the unabashed support he received for Mike Malone postgame, exiting his NBA TV interview with the axiom, “shooters shoot, baby.” He’s the kind of guard you’d want to pair with the passive (literally) Jokic, a gunner with fourth-quarter chops. It’s not enough to even sniff Golden State, but it may be just enough to lift Denver out of the first round for the first time since 2009.
The Nuggets head south to San Antonio hoping to avoid elimination when the series returns to Denver for Game 5. What many expected to be a tricky series could shape up to be a seven-game battle, and San Antonio’s personnel looks fit to match the Nuggets. Denver’s cushy defense won’t bother DeMar DeRozan or LaMarcus Aldridge much. Denver will need to keep its offense above water to win, and Murray will need to be the driver of its success.