The San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets will face off in a fascinating first round series that will contain many intriguing matchups.
Before Portland suffered some injuries to their key players, most San Antonio Spurs fans wanted to see the Denver Nuggets in their first round matchup.
They got their wish after both teams won on the final night of the regular season.
The Spurs come into this series winning 14 of their final 19 games whereas the Nuggets stumbled a bit down the stretch going 12-9.
Both teams enter the series as healthy as they’ve been all year, which should allow each squad to perform at the peak of their powers in the first round.
The Spurs and Nuggets provide each other with some difficult matchups which will cause Gregg Popovich and Mike Malone to make adjustments as the series begins to take shape.
Here are the three key matchups that will determine who moves on to the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs:
Next: Derrick White vs. Jamal Murray
Derrick White vs. Jamal Murray
Murray is more of a “score first” point guard who dropped 18.2 points per game while shooting 36.7% from three on 5.5 attempts per contest with a true shooting percentage of 53.8% during the regular season.
With an excellent passer like Nikola Jokic at center, Murray doesn’t really distribute the ball as much as a usual point guard. His assist-to-usage ratio ranks in the 28th percentile amongst those at his position.
Meanwhile, White has built his reputation on the defensive end where he finished the regular season third amongst point guards in defensive real plus minus and has a legitimate case for the All-Defensive team with 1 steal and 0.7 blocks per game in just 25.8 minutes.
White is less of a focal point of the offense than Murray is as the second year point guard has a usage rate of just 19.6% compared to Murray’s 25.3%.
Murray scored 19.8 points per game with 6 assists per contest in four matchups with the Spurs this season, but he was held to a true shooting percentage of just 48.1% in those games against White.
White had some similar struggles offensively against his hometown team as he scored just 8.3 points per game and dished out 4.3 assists with a true shooting percentage of 41.8% in four showdowns with the Nuggets.
Whoever wins this matchup at the point guard position could determine who’s season ends prematurely in the first round.
Next: DeMar DeRozan vs. Gary Harris
DeMar DeRozan vs. Gary Harris
It remains to be seen who the Nuggets will choose to defend DeMar DeRozan as they could throw a number of different bodies at him throughout the series.
However, I think we’ll see Gary Harris on him a majority of the time.
Harris has built a reputation as one of the best shooting guard defenders in the league and he’s lived up to that billing this year ranking seventh at the position in defensive real plus-minus.
But Harris and the rest of the Nuggets’ defense did not do a great job of slowing down DeRozan during the regular season as he scored 20 points per game and dished out 5 assists with a stellar true shooting percentage of 59.4%, which is above his season long number of 54.2%.
With a defensive liability like Jokic at center, DeRozan has been able to attack the rim consistently against Denver this year.
Unfortunately, DeMar had a tendency to underperform in the playoffs during his career in Toronto. We’ll see if that trend continues in a Spurs uniform or if he’s taken the next step to become a dominant postseason player.
Next: LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Nikola Jokic
LaMarcus Aldridge vs. Nikola Jokic
Dylan Carter has already written about how this matchup is one of the most fascinating duels in the first round, so it’s well worth it to dig into it again in this article.
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Aldridge’s usage percentage of 25.5% ranks in the 94th percentile among big men, and Jokic’s number is even higher as his usage percentage of 29.5% puts him in the 98th percentile amongst bigs.
These two All-Stars have defended each other for long stretches during their matchups during the regular season, but it remains to be seen whether Pop and Mike Malone will stick with that strategy during the playoffs.
Aldridge put up some big numbers against the Nuggets scoring 22.3 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 59.1% in four games against Denver, and that includes their final matchup where Aldridge played under 25 minutes on the second night of a back-to-back in a blowout loss.
Nikola Jokic wasn’t as aggressive as usual during his four matchups against San Antonio this season as he only put up 10.75 shots per game against the Spurs compared to his season-long number of 15.1.
Jokic was extremely efficient with those shots as he scored 16.8 points per game with an eye-popping true shooting percentage of 74.1% against San Antonio.
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If Jokic can remain that efficient on a higher volume of shots in this series, the Spurs could be in major trouble. However, the Spurs may have figured out a way to scheme him out of the offense and make the rest of the Nuggets’ supporting cast attempt to beat them.