DENVER - The issue for the Denver Nuggets in a 101-96 loss to San Antonio in Game 1 of a Western Conference playoff series Saturday at the Pepsi Center wasn’t creating clean shots - there were plenty of those - it was making the open looks.
No miss will stand out more than Jamal Murray’s in the final 10 seconds. Despite his team's 6-for-28 showing from 3-point range, the Nuggets had a chance to take a lead coming out of a timeout with 13.3 seconds left.
Denver coach Michael Malone drew up a high pick-and-roll between star center Nikola Jokic and Murray. When Murray found plenty of separation behind the screen of the 7-foot, 250-pound Serbian he pulled up for a shot he’s made countless times.
Like so many of the Nuggets’ previous shots, Murray’s potential go-ahead shot clanged off the rim.
“He was wide open,” Jokic said. “I think it was uncontested, so we’re going to live with that.”
LaMarcus Aldridge stretched the San Antonio advantage to three with a couple free throws before Derrick White put the game on ice, stripping Murray with just a couple seconds remaining and making his free throws for the final five-point cushion. In addition to the crucial steal, White finished with 16 points, making 7 of 10 shots, and five assists in a return to his hometown.
“He was spectacular,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “For somebody who got put in that position and to learn that position with a bunch of new players, it’s really remarkable what he’s done. Hopefully, he’ll continue to play that way because it’s going to be a long series.”
The seventh-seeded Spurs now have home-court advantage over the No. 2 Nuggets.
All seven of the game’s lead changes came in the first quarter. A 34-point second quarter helped the visitors take a 59-51 lead to halftime with the Nuggets making just 2 of their 13 first-half attempts from 3.
The Nuggets responded by limiting the Spurs to 13 points in the third quarter but gave up 29 in the fourth.
“We’ll need a much more consistent defensive effort in Game 2,” Malone said.
While the third-quarter defense gave the Nuggets a chance, the misses from deep greatly decreased the likelihood of a win.
Murray, Will Barton and Paul Millsap missed good looks at tying 3-pointers early in the third quarter, and Jokic and Murray had got a couple more chances to erase the deficit in the fourth but none connected.
“If you’re wide open, you gotta keep taking those shots,” Barton said. “You can’t shy away. You gotta keep the defense honest and shoot those shots.”
The stream of open looks was largely a result of the Spurs sending double teams Jokic’s way. Jokic finished with another triple-double, posting 10 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists.
“I think we did a really good job,” Jokic said of handling the double teams. “We found open shots. We couldn’t make shots. That was the main problem.”
That problem persisted until Murray, who reportedly headed up to the team’s practice facility just after the loss, saw his shot rim out at the end.
“I thought Jamal’s look was an uncontested, pull-up jump shot,” Malone said. “A shot he’s made 1,000 times, and he’ll make it again.”
Gary Harris led all scorers with 20 points for the Nuggets, while Murray added 17. Barton’s 15 and Millsap’s 12 saw all five of the Denver starters reach double figures.
DeMar DeRozan led the Spurs with 18 and grabbed a team-high 12 rebounds, while LaMarcus Aldridge and Bryn Forbes added 15 apiece.
Game 2 is set for 7 p.m. Tuesday, and Malone has an easy adjustment to make.
“Make shots,” the Denver coach said. “It’s simply stated, this is a make or miss league.”