In a high-flying game between two playoff-bound teams that was heavy on scoring and light on defense, the Denver Nuggets hosted the San Antonio Spurs, and in a Western Conference battle decided in the closing seconds, Denver hung on for a 115-112 win.
Coming into Denver, an unkind schedule faced the Spurs, with 11 of their last 12 remaining regular season games coming against playoff teams. That situation is compounded by the ankle injury to Hall of Fame player Tim Duncan, out for this crucial three-game road swing against conference opponents Denver, Portland and Memphis. Their 6.5 game lead over the Lakers for the top seed in the West is anything but assured.
For Denver, team ball has been the name of their game since the Feb. 22 trade that dumped Carmelo Anthony on the New York Knicks, going 10-4 since the trade. It is a glowing number when comparing the Knicks 7-8 record since the Anthony acquisition. Coming into the Spurs game, the Nuggets had improved their regular season record to 42-29, including a respectable 28-7 home record and were positioning themselves in the final standing for their playoff seed.
In pre-game comments on Spurs Radio, Spurs assistant coach Don Newman said: “They’re averaging 25 assists per game, that shows they’re sharing the ball. The atmosphere there is totally different. Everyone on the court is playing, and they’re playing for each other.”
Under that scenario, the Spurs brought their 3-game winning streak, including a pivotal win in Dallas over the Mavericks, into the hostile Pepsi Center and were greeted by a chorus of boos throughout the game, particularly at the free throw line.
Both teams put together a series of runs in the first quarter that would eventually carry on throughout the game, leading to its climactic finish. San Antonio started strong, and thanks to a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers by Manu Ginobili, went on an 11-0 run and an early 13-3 lead.
A runner by Nenê stopped the run and helped Denver put together their own 9-2 run, thanks to six straight shots missed by the Spurs. An uncontested layup by Ty Lawson closed the Spurs lead to 15-12.
The Spurs then went on a 10-2 run and a 25-14 lead after a teardrop by Tony Parker. At the end of one, San Antonio had a 34-24 lead.
Al Harrington opened the second quarter for Denver with a 3-pointer but the Spurs answered with a 7-0 run and a 41-27 lead.
At one stretch midway through the second quarter, Gary Neal scored 10 of 12 Spurs points, including three 3-pointers. By then, the Spurs had hit 7-of-11 from beyond the arc.
After building their 14-point lead, the Spurs let Denver back into the game with a 13-3 run, closing to within 55-52. A Richard Jefferson jumper at the shot clock buzzer stopped the Denver run and both teams traded baskets the rest of the quarter.
At the half, San Antonio was on top, 69-64, thanks to another pair of back-to-back threes by Ginobili. As a team, the Spurs hit 9-of-14 from beyond the arc in the half.
Denver blitzed the Spurs for 40 second-quarter points, the most allowed in a quarter by the Spurs this season. The Nuggets bench kept them in the game in the first half, with Harrington and Smith each scoring 14 points. Gallinari added 12 points.
Ginobili led the Spurs in the first half with 18 points, including 4-of-7 from 3-point land. Neal added 17 points, with 4-of-4 on treys.
Denver fell behind by 10 midway through the third quarter, before closing strong, putting together yet another run, this one a 13-6 run that ended the quarter and propelled them into the fourth quarter, down by just a 93-90 score.
Defense finally made an appearance in the fourth quarter for Denver while the Spurs offense took a break at an inopportune time. After holding the lead since the opening seconds of the first quarter and increasing it to 14 on two separate occasion, including as late as midway through the third, the Spurs fell flat in the fourth, at one point missing 8 straight shots late, eventually giving Denver the lead and the game.
Denver took the lead, 99-98, late in the quarter on a J.R. Smith pull-up shot and on their next possession went up 102-98 on an Al Harrington 3-pointer, putting them on a crucial 11-0 run.
Gary Neal hit a huge three for the Spurs to pull within 102-101 and a Tony Parker layup tied the game at 107 just under the 4:00 mark, but the Nuggets Raymond Felton nailed a dagger three to put Denver back on top, 110-107.
With Denver ahead, 115-112, the Spurs had one last chance to tie the game. Coming out of a timeout, the Spurs had the ball with 6.5 seconds to play but Ginobili missed a step-back 3-pointer and Denver solidified its stretch run toward the playoffs.
Neal led the Spurs with 25 points, including 6-of 8 from beyond the arc. Ginobili scored 20 while Parker added 19 points. Antonio McDyess added a double-double wit 13 points and 12 boards before fouling out in the final minutes of the game.
Denver had a balanced scoring attack, with six players scoring in double figures. The bench led the way, with Harrington scoring 27, while Felton and Smith each added 18 points. Danilo Gallinari added 13 points, Lawson scored 12 and Martin added 11 points.