|Inexperienced Nuggets ready for veteran Spurs|
The Denver Nuggets have waited six long years to get back to the postseason. The San Antonio Spurs had to wait all of 11 months.
Denver, the youngest team in the NBA, went from just outside the playoffs a year ago to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. The Spurs, who now have reached the postseason for 22 straight years, are a formidable first-round opponent for the inexperienced Nuggets.
"It's going to test us," Denver point guard Jamal Murray said. "Disciplined team."
Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinal series is Saturday night in Denver.
The constant in San Antonio's playoff streak is head coach Gregg Popovich. He has been on the bench for five titles and six trips to the NBA Finals but his team has been morphing since reaching the Western Conference finals in 2017.
Kawhi Leonard, the MVP of the 2014 Finals and the centerpiece of the franchise after Tim Duncan retired, was unhappy with the team and was shipped to Toronto in the offseason for DeMar DeRozan. Then point guard Dejounte Murray tore his ACL in October.
It looked like a year when the Spurs wouldn't make the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference, but they won 48 games and are back. Local product Derrick White moved into the starting lineup and has become a premier defender and solid offensive player. Bryn Forbes has developed into a reliable shooting guard and LaMarcus Aldridge is still a force on the post.
The Spurs enter the playoffs with loads of postseason experience while the Nuggets are thin. Only three main rotation players have been to the playoffs, with forward Paul Millsap (87 games) the only one with extensive experience.
Mason Plumlee (27 games) and Will Barton (seven games) have also tasted the postseason.
Guard Isaiah Thomas has played 25 playoff games but might not see any significant court time. Denver's core, All-Star Nikola Jokic, Murray and Gary Harris are getting their first taste. They'll found out Saturday night how intense playoff basketball is compared to the regular season.
Michael Malone has been to the postseason as an assistant coach but this will be his first time as the head coach. Conversely, Popovich has coached 277 playoff games.
"Gregg Popovich has five rings," Malone said Wednesday night. "I have a wedding ring."
"It's going to be an all-out brawl," Barton said. "Every minute, every second, every quarter, it's going to be a fight. Every game. And we got to be ready to have that mentality from the beginning. We can't wait like we do sometimes in the regular season."
Denver stumbled down the stretch, winning five of its last 10 and needed a furious rally in the last 3:10 to beat Minnesota on Wednesday night and secure the No. 2 seed.
San Antonio, on the other hand, enters the playoffs on a three-game winning streak.
"We ended off strong," DeRozan told The San Antonio Express-News. "Our confidence is high. ... I think we've got our mindset where it's supposed to be heading into the playoffs."
Denver and San Antonio split the four matchups in the regular season, each winning the home games. The Nuggets won the last matchup, 113-85, in Denver on April 3. Popovich was ejected 63 seconds into the game but it's a good bet he'll stick around for these games.
The Nuggets' 34 home wins were tops in the NBA but the Spurs won't be intimidated.
"Everyone here is hungry, even the young guys," Forbes told The Express-News. "We all want to prove people wrong who didn't even have us in the playoffs at the beginning of the season. We want to win it all. We want to prove everybody wrong and do what we know we are capable of doing."
--Field Level Media