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The Guard Matchup That Will Define the Nuggets-Spurs Series

Many fans have pegged Jamal Murray for stardom since the Nuggets drafted him. Many fans have no idea who Derrick White even plays for. But pedigrees are irrelevant in the playoffs. White had the upper hand after Game 1. How will Murray respond?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Spurs guard Derrick White landed the first blow against rising Nuggets star Jamal Murray in San Antonio’s 101-96 win over Denver on Saturday. White, a second-year player who took over at point guard after a preseason injury to Dejounte Murray, outplayed his highly touted counterpart in Game 1 of the first-round series between the two teams. He finished with 16 points and five assists on 7-of-10 shooting, compared with 17 points and zero assists on 8-of-23 shooting for Murray. The matchup between the two guards, who defended each other for most of their time on the floor, will play a huge role in determining the outcome of the series.

White could make a name for himself in the playoffs. He has one of the most unlikely origin stories in the NBA: He’s a former Division II athlete who played one season at Colorado and was taken with the no. 29 overall pick in the 2017 draft just days before his 23rd birthday. After spending most of his rookie season in the G League, White was ready when Murray went down, stabilizing the Spurs on both ends of the floor. He’s a steady decision-maker (3.9 assists on 1.4 turnovers) who can make open shots (33.8 percent from 3 on 2.1 attempts per game) with the size (6-foot-4 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan) and athleticism to defend multiple positions. San Antonio has its best net rating with White on the floor (plus-4.3 in 1,728 minutes) compared with their other starters, and its worst when he’s off (minus-0.9 in 2,223 minutes).

His skill set was on full display in his first playoff start. After picking up two quick fouls in the opening minutes, White calmed down and took control of the game at the start of the second quarter. He’s the perfect fit in the Spurs offense: He lacks the burst of many of the NBA’s best point guards, but he’s a smart player who knows how to play off of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. White did most of his damage moving off the ball, attacking closeouts, and taking advantage of the rotating defense to get to the rim and find the open man. He used his strength to nudge Murray out of the way on a lot of his drives:

White picked up the slack for Aldridge (15 points on 6-of-19 shooting) and DeRozan (18 points on 6-of-17 shooting), both of whom struggled against the Nuggets’ aggressive double teams. He is the skeleton key that unlocks everyone else on the Spurs. DeRozan, an average defender and poor outside shooter, needs to be paired with a 3-and-D guard like White. His net rating this season goes from plus-2.3 in 1,238 minutes with White to minus-2.4 in 1,451 minutes without him. San Antonio doesn’t have enough defense when DeRozan plays with some combination of Bryn Forbes, Patty Mills, and Marco Belinelli in the backcourt.

White’s defense on Murray was just as important as his offense on Saturday. He’s only an average athlete by NBA standards, but he’s a tireless worker who uses his length to his advantage. He’s tied for second in blocks per game (0.7) among guards this season, and he’s in the 73rd percentile among all players leaguewide when defending the pick-and-roll and in the 70th percentile when defending isolations, per the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports. White did a great job of staying attached to Murray while chasing him around screens on and off the ball, recovering to run him off the 3-point line and contest his shot:

White can’t get all the credit for Murray’s poor shooting Saturday. Murray missed plenty of open shots, while individual matchups on the perimeter are fairly fluid. Murray played five more minutes than White, and their minutes didn’t align perfectly. There were also situations when they were cross-matched on other players in transition, or were forced to switch assignments after a screen. But the numbers when the two were on each other were striking: Murray was 6-of-17 in the 35 possessions where White was his primary defender, while White was 6-of-7 in the 33 possessions where Murray was his primary defender.

It’s hard for the Nuggets to overcome a poor performance from Murray. The third-year guard leads them in field goal attempts (15.6 per game), and he’s their second-leading scorer (18.2 points on 43.7 percent shooting) and playmaker (4.8 assists on 2.1 turnovers per game). He’s had some massive scoring games this season, including dropping 48 points on the Celtics. Denver needs his outside shooting to open up the floor for Jokic: They are an average 3-point shooting team that is no. 16 in the league in attempts (31.4 per game) and no. 17 in percentage (35.1). Murray is shooting 39.7 percent from 3 on 5.9 attempts per game in their wins this season and 29.9 percent on 4.9 attempts in their losses. He was 0-of-6 from 3 on Saturday.

Murray has lived a charmed life in the NBA. He’s a score-first player with only average size (6-foot-4 and 207 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan) and athleticism for a shooting guard. Playing next to Jokic gives him the freedom to hunt for his own shot against smaller defenders at point guard without having to worry about facilitating the offense. His net rating drops from plus-6.7 in 1,859 minutes with Jokic this season to plus-1.3 in 589 minutes without him. His performance in Game 1 was a worst-case scenario for the Nuggets. They can’t afford for their lead guard to take 23 shots without a single assist. Murray has to make sure that the ball gets back to Jokic, who had 14 assists while taking only nine shots.

Denver has other options if Murray can’t get going. Monte Morris is one of the best backup point guards in the NBA, whose emergence in his second season may have ended Isaiah Thomas’s NBA career. He’s averaging 10.4 points on 49.3 percent shooting in 24.0 minutes per game this season, as well as 3.6 assists on only 0.6 turnovers. He doesn’t have Murray’s size or ability to score off the dribble, but he’s a more consistent defender, as well as a better passer and outside shooter (41.4 percent from 3 on 2.8 attempts per game). The Nuggets need a second playmaker besides Jokic in this series, and Morris was second on the team in assists (five) Saturday despite playing only 23 minutes.

The problem with playing Morris more is that there may not be many enough minutes for Murray anywhere else in the rotation. Moving him to the wing would mean cutting into the playing time of Gary Harris, Will Barton, Torrey Craig, and Malik Beasley, who all took turns defending DeRozan in Game 1. Murray, who had his hands full against White, would have a tough time on the bigger and stronger DeRozan. There aren’t a lot of spots to hide a perimeter player on defense against the Spurs. DeRozan is an All-Star caliber player, while White, Mills, Forbes, and Belinelli all move well without the ball and can punish defenders for falling asleep. San Antonio won’t beat itself, and it will kill a team who makes mental mistakes.

Odds are that Denver head coach Mike Malone won’t make any major adjustments to his rotation. The Nuggets are a young team making their playoff debut, and their plan is for Murray (22) to be their second star next to Jokic (24) for the next decade. They don’t want to shake Murray’s confidence. He will need to play a lot better for them to beat the Spurs. It starts with him making open 3s and moving the ball when he gets in the lane. He rarely passed it back to Jokic after the big man set a screen for him in the two-man game.

The other key for Murray is staying engaged on defense. He had some strong moments on that end of the floor on Saturday, most notably racking up five steals. He just has to lock in over the course of the game. White isn’t a speed demon. He shouldn’t be able to blow by Murray off the dribble. Murray has to be more aware of where White is on the floor and do a better job of positioning himself so that White can’t knock him off balance. The end of Game 1 came down to the duel between the two guards, who each missed a jumper in the final minute and forced the other into a crucial turnover. The one who makes these plays consistently over the next two weeks could flip the balance in what should be a closely fought series:

It should be a learning experience for both Murray and White. There is nowhere to hide in the playoffs. The key players on each team have to outplay the guy across them to advance. It doesn’t matter what their reputations are or where they came from. Murray was a five-star recruit who played one season at Kentucky before being taken with the no. 7 overall pick in the 2016 draft. He’s supposed to be a star. He should be able to win a matchup against White, a player most NBA fans have never even heard of. White could make his name off Murray in this series. Murray can earn his against White. He’ll get a chance to strike back in Game 2 on Tuesday.