Thursday night should have belonged to Nikola Jokic. Coming off a regular season in which he earned an All-Star berth and MVP consideration for his work as the Denver Nuggets’ playmaking focal point, the 24-year-old has been sensational in his first NBA playoff series, answering in the affirmative every question about whether he’d be able to hold up on defense against elite offenses or continue to score and dish against defenses scheming to stop him. After carrying the Nuggets to the verge of their first appearance in Round 2 since 2009, Jokic absolutely torched the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6, busting up Gregg Popovich’s defense every which way he could en route to a career-high 43 points on 19-for-30 shooting, 12 rebounds, and nine assists in 38 minutes:
But what should have been the Serbian sensation’s breakthrough postseason moment will instead go down as a missed opportunity. Despite Jokic’s heroic effort, the Spurs pasted the Nuggets, 120-103, to stay alive and force a winner-take-all Game 7 back in Denver on Saturday night. The Nuggets had the best player on the floor, playing at perhaps the highest level of his young career, but that didn’t matter, because San Antonio made a freaking ton of tough shots.
That’s the thing about the Spurs’ anachronistic, inside-the-arc-heavy offense: When the players who populate it drill those looks that the rest of the league abjures, it can be pretty damn effective. San Antonio shot a blistering 57.1 percent as a team in Game 6, knocking down 30 of 49 2-point shots outside the restricted area—including an eye-popping 20 of 29 midrange attempts (69 percent) from between the paint and the 3-point arc, an area from which the Spurs had shot just 37.5 percent in the first five games of the series.
LaMarcus Aldridge scored 13 points in the first quarter on his way to a team-high 26, many of which came on plays where either Jokic or Paul Millsap had stoned him on a face-up drive or post-up attempt only to watch him step back or reverse pivot his way into an unblockable jumper. DeMar DeRozan opened the game thinking pass-first, dishing seven assists against one turnover with only six shot attempts at halftime. He cranked up the scoring after intermission, though, finishing with 25 points to go with those seven assists and seven boards; he shot 9-for-10 from the floor in the second half on a steady diet of midrange pull-ups and fadeaways that Nuggets guards Torrey Craig and Gary Harris just couldn’t bother.
Even with Aldridge and DeRozan going off, though, the Spurs needed another source of buckets to keep Denver at bay once the Jokic–Jamal Murray two-man game got rolling in earnest in the second quarter. Enter Rudy Gay, who had shot just 7-for-33 in the previous four games of the series, but who was on target on Thursday, pouring in 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting in 28 minutes off the Spurs’ bench.
Once something of a punching bag for analytics adherents due to his predilection for long 2s, the 32-year-old Gay has quietly stretched out his game amid the Spurs’ 2-heavy attack; Gay shot a career-high 40.2 percent from 3-point land on 2.7 attempts per game this season. His increased comfort from distance paid dividends in Game 6, as he hit three catch-and-shoot 3-pointers when the Nuggets failed to track him in the corner:
Those Gay triples were big, in part because they helped give San Antonio’s offense slightly more variety and punch than we’d seen thus far in the series. After seeming reticent to fire against a Nuggets defense that has done a good job limiting clean looks off dribble handoff and high-screen actions, Spurs shooters were more willing to let it fly with their backs against the wall, ready to shoot off the catch even with a Denver defender flying in their faces on the closeout. The result: seven corner 3 attempts in Game 6, nearly twice as many as San Antonio had averaged in the first five games through Game 5; 24 total long-range tries, up from 18.4 per game before Thursday, and a series-high 10 makes. That was four more than Denver managed, giving the Spurs a vital 12-point edge from beyond the arc even as they continued to scorch the nets from inside it.
Every time Jokic rumbled his way to the front of the rim or tossed in a high-arcing jumper over the outstretched arms of Jakob Poeltl, San Antonio would come down the other end and make a shot. The Nuggets could never get enough stops to make Jokic’s brilliance matter; they all but gave the game away in his absence. From the 1:03 mark of the third quarter, when Mason Plumlee (who was not good, at all) checked in to give him a breather in a Millsap-plus-the-bench unit, through the 8:59 mark of the fourth, when Jokic, Murray, and Harris all returned from the bench, San Antonio outscored Denver 12-2, turning a one-possession game into one in which the margin would never again get back to single digits. All season long, the Nuggets reserves—Plumlee, point guard Monte Morris, swingman Malik Beasley—made vital contributions to their run to 54 wins and the West’s no. 2 seed. On Thursday, though, their inability to stop the bleeding or match buckets with San Antonio forced Denver into a last-gasp elimination game that coach Michael Malone had really hoped to avoid.
All’s not lost for the Nuggets. That elimination game will come at Pepsi Center, where they posted the league’s best home record this season. After a 7-for-18 performance on Thursday, Murray’s pendulum might swing from “trick” back to “treat” under the klieg lights of a Game 7, and role players Beasley and Morris should be better at home than they were on the road. (It’d be really nice if Will Barton was, too.)
Thanks to a wild shotmaking performance, the Spurs survived long enough to find out how a young and untested Nuggets team will respond to a do-or-die environment. Malone didn’t want his team to lean on the “Game 7 at home” crutch on Thursday, but it’ll be nice to have that support come Saturday all the same; odds are the Spurs can’t do that again, and especially on the road, where they’ve struggled all season. After watching them score 133.3 points per 100 possessions on mostly the “worst” shots in the sport, though, you’d forgive Malone if he didn’t find favorable probabilities particularly heartening right now.
One thing that might help the coach rest a little easier: He’s still got Jokic, a bona fide star putting up Hall of Fame numbers in his first playoff series, who proved with his monster effort on Thursday that he is in no way shaken by the size of the task at hand. By spoiling his coming-out party in Game 6, the Spurs opened the door for Jokic to showcase his talents on an even grander stage. If Jokic responds with his best, Denver should advance. If he doesn’t, the Spurs could continue their unlikely, midrange-jumper-fueled run through their 22nd straight postseason.