Nuggets brace for Popovich, Spurs in return to playoffs
DENVER — Gone from San Antonio may be the familiar names of Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.
Still, there’s plenty of Pop — coach Gregg Popovich, who’s led the Spurs to five championship rings as they extended their playoff streak to 22 straight appearances.
The iconic coach and his seventh-seeded squad begin a first-round series Saturday against the Denver Nuggets , who are a little lean on playoff experience in returning to the postseason for the first time since 2013. The second-seeded Nuggets caught the NBA world by surprise this season behind the play of All-Star big man Nikola Jokic.
Now, they’re eager to show they indeed belong after a 54-win season and challenging Golden State for the top spot down to the wire.
No pre-playoff jitters, either.
“I don’t feel nothing special,” said Jokic, who averaged 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists. “We have a great challenge. It’s going to be tough. We know. They’re really talented. They’re really experienced. They have a great coach.”
The Spurs boast dynamic players in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge.
They also have one of the best in the business on the sideline in Popovich, who’s amassed 1,412 combined wins in the regular season (1,245) and postseason (167). He’s one shy of setting the all-time combined victories mark in NBA history, moving past Lenny Wilkens (1,332 in the regular season, 80 in the playoffs).
“He’s seen it all, done it all,” Paul Millsap said of Popovich. “We know he’s going to play some mind games. We’re going to be prepared for that.”
In contrast, Nuggets coach Michael Malone will be making his postseason head coaching debut.
“That’s a Mike Tyson knockout if you’re comparing Gregg Popovich to Michael Malone,” Malone joked. “The guy is arguably the best in NBA history.”
Popovich is proud of the job Malone has done in steadily building up the Nuggets, who missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons by a game.
“He’s done a great job and got everybody buying into the system — unselfish, playing together,” Popovich said. “He’s done a hell of a job.”
Denver doesn’t exactly possess a ton of postseason experience. Namely, Paul Millsap, Mason Plumlee, Will Barton and Isaiah Thomas , who hasn’t played much after Malone shortened the team’s rotation.
The Spurs have quite a few players who’ve been through the playoff grinder.
“Every possession counts. No more, ‘My bads,’” said DeRozan, who’s going through his first postseason run with the Spurs after being acquired in the trade last offseason that sent Leonard to Toronto. “You’ve got to go out there wanting to win every single possession that you can, so you come out with the victory.”
That’s a concept the Nuggets fully understand.
“We don’t have the experience that everyone keeps talking about,” Murray said. “But we have a lot of guys that can hoop.”
Here are things to know after the Nuggets and Spurs split their four regular-season matchup with each winning two at home:
THE STREAK: San Antonio’s playoff streak of 22 straight is tied with the Syracuse Nationals/ Philadelphia 76ers for longest in NBA history. It’s the longest active streak of the major North American sports, ahead of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins (13), NFL’s New England Patriots (10) and MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers (6).
HOMECOMING: Spurs guard and Colorado native Derrick White had numerous ticket requests to fill the last time he was in town. The demand is sure to only increase. White had a breakout season for the Spurs, averaging 9.9 points per game. “It’s not like watching Manu,” Popovich joked. “You know what you’re going to get from Derrick and he’s just getting smarter and smarter every week that goes by. He’s going to have a great future.”
HOME COOKING: At 34-7, the Nuggets had the best home record in the NBA. The Spurs have won 13 straight over Denver in San Antonio.
THE LITTLE THINGS: The Spurs had the fewest turnovers in the regular season (12.1 per game), the highest team free throw percentage (81.9) and the highest 3-point percentage (39.2). “We have to be real disciplined with this team,” Murray said.
GOOD COMPANY: DeRozan eclipsed the 1,000-point mark in a Spurs jersey in his 47th game. That was the fourth-fastest to reach 1,000 in team history, behind David Robinson (44 games), along with Terry Cummings and George Gervin (45 each). Now it’s on to the postseason. “It’s another great opportunity for me to compete,” DeRozan said. “I’ve had a lot of success and a lot of fails in the playoffs. That’s kind of like my motivation to be able to come start fresh here with a new group of guys.”
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