The 2019 NBA Playoffs have finally arrived as a determined San Antonio Spurs core prepared to take on the Denver Nuggets in Game One.
In a season full of transition and development, the San Antonio Spurs showed signs of significant growth across the board. We’ve seen flashes of excellent two-way effort as the team’s chemistry blossomed and found an identity. The brotherhood exemplified by this team has been crucial in growing into a legitimate playoff contender.
Game one of the Spurs’ first-round matchup against the Denver Nuggets is set to tip off at the Pepsi Center at 9:30 p.m. CST and will feature some outstanding coaching on both sides. While San Antonio enters the matchup as the clear favorite in terms of playoff and veteran experience, the surging Nuggets will be tested after exceeding all expectations in the regular season.
Here are a few specific things to keep watch for in the first game of the 2019 NBA Playoffs.
— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) April 13, 2019
Getting playmakers involved
As the lead playmakers for this ballclub, star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan and multifaceted combo guard Derrick White bear significant responsibility under the guidance of head coach Gregg Popovich. These two guards will be tasked with initiating offense for the rest of the team by finding teammates around the perimeter and operating in the pick-and-roll.
DeRozan has been spectacular in that regard this season, posting a career-high 6.2 assists per game while leading the league in assists on three-point baskets. Defenders are weary of his slashing ability and killer mid-range game, so naturally they’ll collapse to the paint.
With the spacing provided by players like Bryn Forbes and Davis Bertans around the three-point line, DeRozan can find shooters for open jumpers. The same goes for White, although his role is a bit different. He’s more likely to find roll men near or around the basket by penetrating and dishing.
No matter how or who they choose to operate the offense through, San Antonio needs some exemplary play from its point guards and playmakers in order to bring the famed Spurs offense to fruition against a feisty Denver team.
Next: Forcing Jokic out of his comfort zone
Forcing Jokic out of his comfort zone
San Antonio’s scouting and coach staff are notorious for doing their due diligence, especially when it comes to playoff time. With that in mind, the Spurs are going to do everything in their power to make All-Star center Nikola Jokic as uncomfortable as possible. Taking him out of his game and forcing him to be someone else seems like a great way to disrupt the flow of the Denver Nuggets.
One way of doing this would be by forcing Jokic into a scoring role as opposed to his normal playmaker role. As one of the most spectacular passing big men in the game, Jokic thrives when dishing the ball off to teammates out of the high post or low block. The combination of his passing vision and basketball IQ make him a serious threat to initiate offense and the Spurs need to limit that as much as possible.
The strength and stature that Jakob Poeltl brings to the table could prove to be pivotal in this matchup. Using his long arms and defensive IQ, Poeltl can key-in on defending Jokic one-on-one and disrupting his vision. Smothering the 24-year-old and forcing players like Jamal Murray, an unnatural point guard playing out of position, to distribute the ball could work in the Spurs favor.
Another way to do this is by playing up on shooters and getting in the way of passing lanes. This way, Jokic will be forced to hold on to the ball himself and take shots.
The Spurs may tempt Jokic into shooting a lot of three-pointers. The seven-footer made a lowly 30.7 percent of 3.4 takes from deep this season. A similar strategy was employed by the Brooklyn Nets, who sagged off of Joel Embiid, allowed him to shoot 0-5 from three-point land, and stole a victory in the first game of the series.
Next: Finding leadership in unexpected places
Finding leadership in unexpected places
On any given moment, the San Antonio Spurs can look down their bench and identify a few different leaders. Obviously LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been the foundational rock stabilizing the franchise over the last two seasons, is going to be an important factor in this game. With their All-Star cooking, the Spurs are at their best. Aldridge scored 23 or more points in 33 games this season and the team won all but six of those matchups.
Just like LaMarcus, we know that the team will look at DeMar DeRozan to show up and play to the fullest extent of his capabilities.
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There are other kinds of leaders that will need to step up in this game. As a playoff veteran with championship experience and an innate drive to win, point guard Patty Mills is going to set the tone for the rest of this team with his play. As one of the best point guards coming off the bench this season, Mills has shown up when the team has needed him most and has a firm understanding of the stakes.
Guys like Derrick White and Bryn Forbes have significantly less experience than Mills, so he’ll take on more responsibility than usual because of the trust that Popovich has for him.
Another veteran whose focus and intensity will set the tone of the rest of the team is Rudy Gay, whose entire purpose in joining this team was to be a part of a winning organization. He’s exemplified the Spurs way through his on-court performance and exceptional personability off the court. Now is the time for the culmination of his work to appear.
The Spurs need Gay to attack the backboards with ferocity while maintaining his composure on offense and providing a balanced scoring effort.