SportsPulse: Who said the NBA playoffs was predictable? Day one was anything but and USA TODAY’s Martin Rogers breaks it all down.
DENVER — DeMar DeRozan scored 18 points and Derrick White had a key steal in the closing seconds in the San Antonio Spurs’ 101-96 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night in Game 1 of their playoff series.
White stole the ball at midcourt from Jamal Murray with 1.3 seconds left after LaMarcus Aldridge sank a pair of free throws following his key defensive rebound of Murray’s errant shot that would have given the Nuggets a 98-97 lead with seven seconds left.
Game 2 is Tuesday night in Denver, where the second-seeded Nuggets failed to parlay the NBA’s best home-court record (34-7) into a win against the seventh-seeded but much more seasoned Spurs.
San Antonio is making its 22nd straight playoff appearance, this one with a new cast that includes DeRozan, who came over from Toronto in the Kawhi Leonard trade.
The Spurs’ win marked the third by a road team on the opening day of the NBA playoffs. They joined the Nets, who won at Philadelphia, and Magic, who won at Toronto.
The victory also propelled head coach Gregg Popovich past Lenny Wilkens for most total victories in NBA history.
The Nuggets, making their first playoff appearance in six years, trailed most of the night. Their last lead came with four minutes left in the first quarter but they trimmed a 12-point deficit to one in the closing minutes.
They had the ball with 13 seconds left trailing 97-96 but Murray’s shot was off – as it was all night – and Aldridge, who shot just 6 of 19 himself, corralled the rebound, then sank two free throws to make it 99-96 with 6.9 seconds remaining.
The Nuggets were hoping for a game-tying 3 although they were just 6 of 28 from long range.
They never got the chance, though, as White stripped Murray and drew the foul, then sank both shots.
Denver All-Star Nikola Jokic posted the fourth triple-double in Nuggets playoff history, with 10 points, 14 assists and 14 rebounds. But he was hesitant on offense all night, taking just nine shots and making four of them.
Throttled by Aldridge, Jokic passed up opportunity after opportunity and shot an airball on a 3-pointer at a crucial moment in the second half that helped San Antonio hold off Denver’s surge.
White added 16 points for San Antonio and Aldridge and Bryn Forbes each had 15. Reserve Rudy Gay scored 14.
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Gary Harris led Denver with 20 points and Murray had 17, but that was on 8-of-24 shooting, including 0 for 6 from the arc.
The Spurs made 15 of 20 shots in the second quarter to build a 59-51 halftime lead.
The Spurs came out cold in the second half and the Nuggets pulled to 62-59. However, Denver missed open 3-pointers on four subsequent possessions with a chance to tie it.
The Nuggets are the youngest team in the Western Conference playoffs with an average age just a tad under 25, and only four of them had any playoff experience before Saturday night. So, coach Michael Malone said before tip-off he expected his team to come out a bundle of nerves.
“This is not rocket science,” Malone said. “This is still basketball. And we’re going to continue to try to do what we’ve done at a very high level over the regular season. The biggest factor, the biggest concern will be the initial couple of minutes and trying to get those nerves out. Then I expect we’ll be fine after that.”
They may have settled down but they never really settled in.
San Antonio: The Spurs have won five of six playoff series against the Nuggets with their only series defeat coming in 1985. … The Nuggets held San Antonio to 13 points in the third quarter but managed just 17 themselves.
Denver: The Nuggets are 6-21 against the Spurs in the playoffs. … The Nuggets have lost seven of their last 12 home games against San Antonio. … Denver won the Northwest Division title for the first time since 2010. … Denver missed eight free throws.
Game 2 is Tuesday night in Denver.