Derrick White scores 36 points as Spurs take 2-1 lead vs. Nuggets

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SAN ANTONIO — San Antonio point guard Derrick White was screaming, flexing and stomping around the court after almost every basket against Denver.

It was completely out of character for White, but the mild-mannered point guard has never been in this situation before.

White had a career-high 36 points and the Spurs beat the Nuggets 118-108 on Thursday night, withstanding a first-half lapse to take a 2-1 lead in the first-round series.

“I just had a chip on my shoulder,” White said. “This is the way I’ve played since I was young. Just try to go out there, compete and have fun.”

Nikola Jokic had 22 points, eight rebounds and seven assists for Denver.

Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio, where the Spurs are 3-0 against the Nuggets this season.

White attacked Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray from the opening tip after being on the receiving end of Murray’s career outing Tuesday night. Murray had only six points, a game after scoring 21 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter to help Denver overcome a 19-point deficit to even the series.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Derrick White, the last couple of days, has been reminded about Jamal Murray’s fourth-quarter performance,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “Derrick White came out like he hadn’t eaten in two days. He came out hungry, he came out (ticked) off and he sent a very loud and clear message. I’m anxious to see our guys, how do we respond to that.”

White set his career high after being fouled by Paul Millsap on a driving layup that bounced off the side of the rim, hit the backboard and fell in to give the Spurs a 99-89 lead with 8:52 remaining. White added five rebounds, five assists and three steals while shooting 12 for 17. The point guard matched his overall career high with 26 points in the first half.

DeMar DeRozan took over after that, scoring 21 of his 25 points in the second half. LaMarcus Aldridge added 18 points and 11 rebounds, and Rudy Gay had 11 points and 10 rebounds.

The Spurs finished with 62 points in the paint and had a 45-37 rebound advantage.

“They are doing a good job of attacking the paint,” Jokic said. “They were living in our paint. I think it’s not just smalls, it’s our bigs, too. I think we all need to be more disciplined and more focused.”

White had 10 points in the opening quarter while primarily being defended by Murray.

“He was obviously spectacular,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “I don’t know what else to say. At both ends of the floor.”

Denver’s second unit dominated, turning a 31-22 deficit after the first quarter into a 38-31 advantage early in the second quarter. The Nuggets opened the second quarter shooting 7 for 8, including a pair of 3-pointers by Malik Beasley. San Antonio’s first points came on Jakob Poeltl‘s two free throws with 8:41 left.

Beasley finished with 20 points, and Gary Harris added 12 points.

Harris stole the ball from Gay at midcourt and then calmly drained a 3-pointer before the Spurs’ defense could set for a 50-40 lead. San Antonio then went on a 21-8 run to close the half and recapture a lead it would not relinquish.

“We got our (butts) kicked because we couldn’t guard anybody,” Malone said.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Denver is the eighth youngest team in playoff history. . Jokic is averaging 11.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists the series. … Isaiah Thomas was eligible to play but did not. … Millsap picked up his third foul with 2:12 remaining in the first half after bumping Aldridge near the 3-pointer. Millsap threw his hands up in frustration as he exited. He finished with five fouls.

Spurs: The Spurs are 22-7 against the Nuggets in the postseason, including 13-3 at home. … White’s previous career highs were 26 points in the regular season against Brooklyn on Jan. 31 and 17 against Denver in Game 2. … Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are the only players to score more points in any half for the Spurs in the postseason than White’s 26 points in the first half.

MINDSET?

Popovich was bemused when asked what the Spurs’ mindset is after earning a split on the road.

“What’s their mindset,” Popovich asked. “I didn’t give any psychological tests today or anything. It’s their job, they are going to come play, so will the Nuggets. They are going to try to win. Nuggets are going to try to win. It’s a competitive sport, that’s the mindset. It’s not too difficult to imagine.”

EXPERIENCED

White made his first postseason start in Game 1 at Denver, but he joked that he has plenty of playoff experience.

“Everybody said I didn’t have playoff experience, but I did this in the G League,” White said. “Just kidding. But it was big for my development.”

UP NEXT

Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

Nuggets must overcome extreme playoff-experience deficit against Spurs

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In Game 1 of their first-round series, the Nuggets outscored the Spurs by six points in seven minutes while both teams’ starters were on the floor. The game got away from Denver the other 41 minutes, when San Antonio gained an 11-point advantage.

“They’re coming off the bench with Patty Mills, Belinelli and Rudy Gay,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “We’re coming off the bench with guys that were in the G League last year.

“We understand who we are, where we’re at.”

I don’t take Malone’s remark as a slam of his own team. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of how far and how quickly Denver has risen. Monte Morris did climb from the minor league to a key NBA role. The Nuggets did end a five-year playoff drought. They are playing the Spurs, who’ve made the postseason 22 straight years.

It’s not criticism to acknowledge the disparity of experience in this matchup.

Everyone who played for San Antonio in Game 1 had prior playoff experience. Only 35% of Denver’s minutes went to players with prior playoff experience.

Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Mason Plumlee are the only rotation Nuggets to appear in a previous postseason. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Torrey Craig never have.

In these 2019 playoffs, Denver has – by far – given the small share of minutes to players with prior playoff experience:

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The last team with such little playoff experience by this measure: 2016 Pistons, who had what we’ll call a Playoff-Experience Level (PEL) of just 30%. That Detroit got swept by the eventual-champion Cavaliers in the first round. Cleveland exclusively used playoff-experienced players that postseason, save four minutes for rookie Jordan McRae.

The 70-point PEL gap between those teams is also one of the highest in recent years, higher even than the 65-point PEL gap between the Nuggets and Spurs.

But the Cavs were the No. 1 seed, the Pistons the No. 8 seed. That’s usually how it goes, the more-experienced team the higher seed.

That’s not true with the second-seeded Nuggets and seventh-seeded Spurs, though. Denver outperformed San Antonio throughout the season.

Does the Spurs’ experience give them an edge now?

Here are the series with PEL gaps above 60% (using full postseason minutes) since the NBA-ABA merger. When the higher seed has a higher PEL, that series is in white. When the lower seed has a higher PEL, that series is in silver. Denver-Antonio is in gold. All teams are listed with their seed first.

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Of the few times the team with the big PEL advantage was the lower seed, the experienced team pulled the upset. That doesn’t bode well for Denver.

The largest PEL gap overcome by a higher seed since the merger? It was 59.6% by the third-seeded Celtics, who beat the sixth-seeded 76ers in the 2002 first round.

So, if the Nuggets win as a higher seed despite a 65% PEL deficit, they’ll make history.

And maybe they will.

Denver is already heading up faster than its experience level would suggest.

D’Angelo Russell on Most Improved Player: ‘I’m gonna win that s—. Watch. Put it on record. I’m gonna win it’

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Raptors forward Pascal Siakam is favored to win Most Improved Player. Kings guard De'Aaron Fox should be leading the race for Most Improved Player.

But nobody is more confident about winning the award than Nets guard D'Angelo Russell.

Russell, via Anthony Pucci of SNY:

“I’m gonna win that s–t. Watch. Put it on record. I’m gonna win it.”

“I’m telling you, I’m winning it!”

Russell has definitely improved a lot. He has taken large role leading the surprisingly solid Nets. His shooting and playmaking are more reliable than ever. He even became a first-time All-Star this season (though as an injury replacement).

Fox’s win shares (4.0, from 1.3) and box plus-minus (+2.8, from -0.4) are up significantly this season from previous career highs.

But he’s not the only one.

Fox, Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Thomas Bryant have made bigger increases in win shares. Fox, Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Vucevic, Beasley, Zach Collins and Noah Vonleh have made bigger increases in box plus-minus.

Russell will likely get MIP votes. His campaigning will help, as will his All-Star appearance.

He should get more credit for rising from average-ish into near-stardom than another player who makes a similar jump from poor to average. Taking the same number of steps gets more difficult the higher a player climbs.

But Russell isn’t on track to make my theoretical three-player MIP ballot, let alone win the award. I doubt enough actual voters will see him as worthy, either.

Optimism with the Wizards? Thomas Bryant supplies it

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DETROIT – Thomas Bryant is usually cheery.

“I don’t like being upset, sad, mad about anything,” Bryant said. “I always want to be happy. I always want people around me to be happy.”

So much so, it could seem the attitude comes naturally to him.

“Hell no,” Bryant said. “It ain’t easy at all.”

It didn’t come easy when Bryant slipped to the second round of the NBA draft in 2017, a year after he returned to Indiana for his sophomore season despite looking like a probable 2016 first-round pick. He went No. 42 to the Lakers.

It didn’t come easy when the Lakers assigned him to their minor-league affiliate much of his rookie season. “You start getting overseas people following you on Instagram and DMing you,” Bryant said. “Like, ‘Hell nah.'”

It didn’t come easy when he barely played while with the Lakers. When got on the court, he usually struggled.

And it especially didn’t come easy when the Lakers waived him last summer.

“That one really got to me,” Bryant said. “I felt like I did everything right. I felt like I gave it my all, and then I went down like that.”

Bryant didn’t know what it meant for his future. He spoke to his agent, trying to get answers. But in those trying moments, he really likes to get away from basketball and watch cartoons like “Family Guy,” “Rick and Morty,” and “Tom and Jerry.”

He also gave himself a pep talk.

“C’mon, you gotta keep swinging, man,” Bryant said he told himself. “There’s a lot more left in the tank for you. You’re young. So, you’ve got to keep trying to get through it.”

The Wizards claimed Bryant off waivers, and he has brought his positivity – and far more production than expected – to Washington. Bryant has been one of the biggest bright spots in the Wizards’ dismal season.

Washington entered the year shooting for 50 wins and the conference finals. Instead, the Wizards (25-36) are barely hanging in the sad Eastern Conference playoff race.

Among the many reasons Washington has disappointed: Starting center Dwight Howard has missed nearly the entire season due to injury. But that opened the door for Bryant.

Bryant has been a revelation. He’s an aggressive rim-runner who converts the numerous close opportunities he creates. His 81% shooting at the rim leads the NBA (minimum: 100 attempts). He has also shown range, making 21-of-55 3-pointers (38%).

In 43 starts, Bryant was averaging 10.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in 21.0 minutes per game. He recently got pulled from the starting lineup because, as Wizards coach Scott Brooks said, “We have to see what we have” in Bobby Portis, who was acquired for Otto Porter shortly before the trade deadline. But in the two games since, Bryant’s minutes (25.3), points (20.5) and rebounds (8.5) per game are up. This doesn’t seem like a big demotion.

Which should keep Bryant in strong consideration for Most Improved Player ballots.

In arguing De'Aaron Fox should be running away with the award, I cited his increase in box plus-minus from -4.4 to +0.8 – a jump of 5.2. Bryant’s box-plus minus increase has been even larger – from -4.2 to +1.8, a jump of 6.0.

But Bryant played just 72 NBA minutes last season. That’s not a reliable sample. Fox fully demonstrated how bad he was last year.

Still, limited playing time usually indicates inadequacy. Bryant seizing a larger role shows just how much he has improved.

Bryant’s increase in win shares of 3.8 (0.1 to 3.9) is the fourth largest in the NBA this season, behind only Monte Morris (another Most Improved Player-ballot candidate), Fox and Malik Beasley.

Here are the biggest increases in win shares (middle) from a prior career high (left) to the current season (right):

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Bryant’s contributions are especially surprising, because the Wizards might have had an ulterior motive to claim him off waivers. Sure, the 21-year-old Bryant had basketball potential. But because he signed his current contract as a draft pick, he also counts less toward the luxury tax than a minimum-salary free agent would have. Washington has shown its tax leeriness by keeping roster spots vacant throughout the season then making trades to dodge the tax entirely.

Bryant will become a restricted free agent this summer. Though he has shown great progress, there are still major questions about him long-term – particularly defensively.

The Wizards are one of the NBA’s worst rebounding teams. It’s a whole-roster problem, but they aren’t much better with Bryant on the court. A solid individual rebounder, he isn’t diligent about boxing out.

With Bryant on the floor, Washington allows opponents to get 38% of their shots at the rim and shoot 67% on them. Essentially, Wizards’ opponents turn into the Bucks, the league’s best team near the basket. It’s hard to build a sound defense when the center provides such little rim protection.

Still, Bryant’s flaws rarely stem from laziness. He’s kinetic on defense, just often flying to the wrong spot.

Bryant is nothing if not energetic.

In describing why it’s important for him to set a tone for his team, Bryant winds up going through the entire roster. He wants to lift the veterans because they can get fatigued by a long season. He wants to lift the benchwarmers because he has been there before. Most of all, he wants to lift Bradley Beal because the star has carried the largest load.

“It’s great,” Beal said. “I tell him every game I need it.”

Beal especially appreciates Bryant’s pre-game routine in the locker room.

“He has his headphones on, and he’s jumping up around, dancing back and forth through the locker room,” Beal said. “So, imagine a 6-10 dude doing all the latest dances. So, it’s pretty fun and funny to watch, but it gets everybody going.”

Bryant knows he’s making his mark.

“They start dancing sometimes, too, and smiling,” Bryant said. “So, it’s all positive.”

De’Aaron Fox should be running away with Most Improved Player

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CHARLOTTE – When De'Aaron Fox was about 6 years old, he watched “Freddy vs. Jason.” The horror movie stuck with him for years.

“All through elementary school, I wouldn’t leave doors open if it was nighttime,” Fox said. “I would make sure I closed every door.”

Now, Fox is only opening doors – for himself and the Kings.

The second-year point guard is the NBA’s breakout player on the league’s breakout team. His speed and energy have invigorated Sacramento, which could end a 12-season playoff drought.

But to truly appreciate Fox, you must understand his rookie season.

“It wasn’t good,” Fox said.

He received no Rookie of the Year votes. He didn’t make an All-Rookie team. He made the Rising Stars game only as an injury replacement.

The Kings went 27-55 and played even worse with Fox on the court. He played below replacement level. His poor shooting and distributing in such a big role proved destructive toward winning.

Now, Fox is arguably the best player in his draft class, in the running with Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell.* Fox received deserved All-Star consideration this year. Sacramento is 30-27 and at its best with Fox on the floor.

*Last season’s Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons, was drafted the prior year.

Fox is lightning quick with the ball and a pest defensively. With his shot now falling, he looks to be in complete control.

He leads the Kings’ up-tempo attack while keeping them organized. With Fox on the court, Sacramento plays like the NBA’s fastest, best-fastbreak team all while maintaining the equivalent of a bottom-five turnover rate.

Fox’s improvement is one of the biggest – not just in this season, but in NBA history.

His box-plus-minus leap from -4.4 to +0.9 is telling.

Here are the biggest increases in box plus-minus (center) from a previous career high (left) to the listed season (right) since the NBA began tracking turnovers in 1973-74 (minimum: 1,000 minutes each season):

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Why isn’t Fox the overwhelming favorite for Most Improved Player? I suspect because there’s a belief second-year players are expected to improve.

I’m just not sure why that matters to voters.

Nobody punishes James Harden in the MVP race because he was an established star expected to be good. Nobody punishes Luka Doncic in the Rookie of the Year race because he was a polished young player expected to be good. Nobody punishes Gregg Popovich in the Coach of the Year race because he was an all-time great coach expected to be good.

“Even if it’s expected, if you improve, it doesn’t matter what the expectation is,” Fox said. “You expect Steph Curry to win MVP, right?

“I don’t think it should matter.”

Fox shouldn’t clinch Most Improved Player just yet. If he stumbles down the stretch, others could catch up.

It can also be tricky to compare Fox to players who didn’t play as much in previous seasons. Fox demonstrated his dismal production over a large, reliable sample last season. How does that compare to players like Wizards center Thomas Bryant, Nuggets guard Malik Beasley and Bulls guard Ryan Arcidiacono? Their lack of prior playing time indicates less prior ability, but perhaps they were erroneously looked over and haven’t improved as much.

Fox is a safe choice for Most Improved Player. We know he was bad last season. We know he’s good this season.

But the Kings didn’t know Fox would develop like this. They took a chance entrusting him with such a large role as a rookie, letting him work through his mistakes.

The payoff has come unusually quick. This level of responsibility is still a lot for a second-year point guard – especially one on a good team.

Fox (24.6 usage percentage, 32.6 assist percentage) is one of just 14 current players who, in his second year, started most of his team’s games at point guard while posting usage and assist percentages above 23. Here are all 14, sorted by team’s winning percentage that season (players who changed teams in-season are listed by their teams’ combined record while they were on each roster):

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Players marked in purple also met the 23%-23% usage-assist thresholds while starting as rookies. All three heavily burdened second-season point guards to lead their teams to winning records – Damian Lillard (2014 Trail Blazers), Russell Westbrook (2010 Thunder) and Fox – had big roles as rookies. It clearly prepared them.

Obviously, that prerequisite doesn’t guarantee second-year success.

But it’s a good bet with someone as talented and driven as Fox.

“People might be surprised by the jump I’ve made, but I’m playing the way I think I should play,” Fox said. “And I think I should be playing even better.”