The San Antonio Spurs finished the year 48-34 after cruising to victory in the final game of the regular season. Although an unfathomable set of circumstances leading up to their matchup with the Dallas Mavericks allowed for the possibility of claiming the sixth-seed, they ultimately secured a seventh-place finish and a date with the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Season in review
Their hopes for homecourt advantage evaporated long ago, but they could still make some noise in the postseason. While their Eastern Conference counterparts are separated by 16 games, Denver and San Antonio are divided by a mere 6 games in the Western Conference Standings.
The West was as competitive as it’s ever been, with a near 50-win season being the only way to punch your ticket into the postseason extravaganza.
Despite the Warriors entering the playoffs as the heavy title favorites, no team outside of Golden State should have a clear path to the next round.
With that said, the Silver and Black will enter their first-round matchup as the worst road team in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Spurs were a paltry 16-25 outside of the AT&T Center this season and that doesn’t bode well for a squad kicking things off away from home.
As bad as they’ve been on the road, San Antonio was frequently in the thick of things down the stretch. In fact, 12 of the Spurs 25 road losses came by three or fewer possessions.
Stagnant ball movement, untimely turnovers, and silly mistakes often killed San Antonio’s chances to steal a win away from home, but these sort of blunders can’t happen in the playoffs.
The Spurs must clean up their act if they wish to avoid a repeat of last year’s early exit against the Golden State Warriors.
Luckily for head coach Gregg Popovich and company, the Denver Nuggets are a much different opponent than the back-to-back champions. Not only are they a much younger team, but they’re an inexperienced group that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2013.
Coincidentally, the 2013 Nuggets were also an incredibly young, talented and successful regular season club that drew a seemingly favorable first-round matchup. Despite homecourt advantage and a 3-1 regular season record over Golden State, Denver found themselves eliminated 2-4 by rising star Steph Curry and the Warriors.
I’m not saying this season’s rendition of the Denver Nuggets is identical to the 2013 bunch. New coaches, fresh faces and a redefined style of play have all led to a drastically changed organizational identity.
However, the one striking commonality between the two is their glaring lack of playoff experience. Though the Nuggets were in the midst of a decade-long playoff streak in 2013, the shockwave from the blockbuster deal that sent Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks dramatically altered Denver’s makeup.
Much like today’s team, the Nuggets were led by a handful of promising prospects and a couple of wily veterans. While 24-year-old MVP candidate Nikola Jokic is certainly miles ahead of any player from their 2013 lineup, young centerpieces tend to be unpredictable in the playoffs. And that could play into San Antonio’s favor.
More than anything, it helps that the Silver and Black have been here before. The Spurs playoff streak dates back to 1998, and every player on the roster with the exception of rookie Lonnie Walker IV has some kind of NBA playoff exposure.
For comparison, Denver’s collection of competitors have logged just 148 games of total playoff experience to San Antonio’s whopping 382. That number sounds respectable until you realize Paul Millsap, Isaiah Thomas, and Mason Plumlee account for 139 of those outings.
Jokic, Jamal Murray, and Gary Harris are the cogs that run the Nuggets’ engine. And when the faces of your franchise don’t know what to expect, it’s a lot harder to prepare for what lies ahead.
Denver and San Antonio split the season series 2-2, but coaches rarely implement the same strategies come playoff time. The Spurs clearly hold an edge when it comes to postseason appearances, so where else can they get the upper hand?
When it comes to answering that question, the results are rather limited and complicated. Both rotations go nine men deep and the two teams have more similarities than you might think.
How they match up
Though the two Western Conference contenders stack up fairly evenly in several statistical categories, they differ quite tellingly in others.
San Antonio holds a decisive on-court advantage in just three major areas; three-point shooting, total field-goal percentage, and free-throw percentage.
With each passing day, a SA vs DEN first-round series is looking inevitable.
Here’s how they stack up across the board.
PPG: 17th & 19th
APG: 16th & 2nd
RPG: 21st & 6th
TO: 1st & 9th
FG%: 2nd & 13th
3P%: 1st & 18th
FT%: 1st & 20th
SPG: 30th & 14th
BPG: 22nd & 25th
PF: 1st & 8th
— Noah Magaro-George (@N_Magaro) April 9, 2019
This is where things get a bit dicey. Denver is home to the league’s best long-distance defense, ranks in the top half of opponent field-goal percentage, and seldom send their adversaries to the charity stripe.
As if that wasn’t problematic enough, the Nuggets lead the league in second-chance points, finished second in offensive rebounding and trailed only the Warriors in assists per game.
Essentially, the Spurs will have to play their cards perfectly to gain a leg-up on their competition.
Thankfully for San Antonio, when it comes to the Xs and Os of basketball, Popovich is the cream of the crop. Head coach Mike Malone has done a masterful job of managing a surplus of talent in the Mile High City, but he’ll be hard-pressed to outsmart and outscheme the three-time NBA Coach of the Year.
At the end of the day, a multitude of factors must fall San Antonio’s way for them to pull off a first-round upset. While there is no denying Denver is a formidable foe, they too have flaws that can be exposed.
The Nuggets lack playoff experience, are shaky on the road, and Pop can coach circles around just about any human on the face of the Earth. A deep playoff run may feel like a longshot, but don’t be surprised if the Spurs surprise the entire association.