Spurs’ smart defense, veterans force Game 7 with 120-103 win over Nuggets

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Nikola Jokic had a career night — 43 points, a personal and franchise playoff best, plus 12 rebounds and nine assists. Once again the two-man game, the pick-and-roll with him and Jamal Murray got into the lane and carved up San Antonio.

The Spurs lived with that. What they did, however, was not collapse off Denver’s shooters to help in the paint — to try to contest twos but give up good-look threes. Denver got its buckets inside — they won the points in the paint battle 72-36 — but shot just 8-of-31 outside the paint on the night.

The Nuggets stars took the shots they were given — Jokic and Murray combined to take 51 percent of Denver’s shots, up from 34.6 percent and 40.5 percent in the previous two wins — but the ball movement and transition buckets that characterize the Nuggets were missing. The Spurs took that away.

Combine that with veterans LaMarcus Aldridge (26 points on 10-of-18 shooting), DeMar DeRozan (25 points on 12-of-16 shooting), and Rudy Gay (19 points on 7-of-11 shooting) stepping up and you end up with the Spurs pulling away for a 120-103 Game 6 win on their home court.

It forces Game 7 Saturday in Denver. The winner advances to take on Portland in the second round.

“We didn’t defend tonight, from the jump ball,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “They came out and scored 34 points in the first quarter, shot 70 percent or close to it [66.7 percent in first], and to give up 120 points in a potential elimination game, 57 [percent shooting]. It just wasn’t good enough.”

The game was decided by a 22-4 San Antonio run that spanned the end of the third and into the start of the fourth quarter, when the Nuggets pulled away.

“It was turnovers for us, it was offensive rebounds for them, and just no defense,” Malone said of the run.

The other difference in the game was the three-point shooting, an area where the Nuggets have dominated through the first five games. Thursday both teams took 24 shots from three, but the Spurs made 10 and the Nuggets six. That’s a dozen points to San Antonio in an area Denver needs to win.

It was like that all night.

San Antonio came out playing like the desperate team on the brink of elimination, playing with energy and staring out 7-of-10 from the floor. The Spurs built up a 10-point point first-quarter lead behind Aldridge, who had 13 points in the first quarter, 6-of-9 from the floor, plus the team shot 65.4 percent for the quarter.

Denver was not phased (this was the fifth time in six games they lost the first quarter), and after shooting 0-of-7 in the first quarter hit 4-of-5 to start the second. The Nuggets got back to playing the kind of ball-movement hoops — with a lot of Murray and Jokic playing off each other and scoring — and the Nuggets grabbed the lead back in the quarter. However, after a DeRozan putback bucket off his own missed free throw at the buzzer gave the Spurs a 64-60 lead at the half. That hustle play seemed to signify the Spurs night.

The game was close through much of the third, but the trends favored San Antonio.

Then the late-quarter run started, and Denver faded. Now they need to find their mojo on the plane home, because Saturday is win-or-go-home for everybody.