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Three factors to watch in Nuggets-Spurs Game 7

Jamal Murray, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Jokic

Afterr six games, the Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs have played to a standstill, setting up a do-or-die Game 7 at Pepsi Center on Saturday night. These are three factors that will help decide whether it’s the Nuggets or Spurs who move on to face the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Semifinals.

  • How San Antonio defends Nikola Jokic

So much for naysayers.

In the first postseason appearance of his career, Jokic has only further established himself as one of the league’s best players, and perhaps the most gifted passing big man of all time. But he’s scored virtually at will when the opportunity presents itself, too, especially in Game 6, when the Spurs adjusted their defensive strategy to turn Jokic into a one-dimensional offensive hub, daring him to beat them by himself. He answered by dropping 43 points on 19-of-30 shooting, abusing Jokob Poeltl on post-ups on the left block, rolls to the rim after ball screens, and show-go drives from the perimeter. Jokic still had nine assists, but the Nuggets’ supporting cast combined to shoot just 37.8 percent overall, including 4-of-18 from beyond the arc – not nearly enough makes or attempts.

There’s no easy answer here for the Spurs. They won Game 6 not with defense, but due to absolutely ridiculous team-wide shot-making that produced a 133.3 offensive rating. Denver, meanwhile, was at 114.4 points per 100 possessions, right in line with the Golden State Warriors’ league-leading season-long mark. Can San Antonio count on that offensive outburst again? Probably not in a Game 7 on the road. Expect Gregg Popovich to open the game by again coaxing Jokic into stepping out of his comfort zone as a high-usage scorer, wary of the crowd getting involved if Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and company get loose from three and for those signature backdoor finishes in the half court.

Either way, this game will be decided by Jokic more than any other player on the floor.

  • Derrick White vs. Jamal Murray

Denver clearly overplayed its hand in the early portion of this series, ignoring White away from the ball to muck up action elsewhere, confident he wouldn’t be able to make them pay from the outside. He didn’t, but it didn’t matter in Game 3, when the sophomore guard exploded for 36 points on 15-of-21 shooting, taking full advantage of the space afforded him by the Nuggets to attack the rim with long strides and soft finishes. Mike Malone adjusted after Game 3, paying him a bit more respect when he’s not involved in the action, and it’s paid off to the tune of White scoring just 33 points in the last three games of this series.

Jamal Murray, the victim of White’s breakout performance last week, has been arguably the most inconsistent player in the playoff thus far – not unlike he was during the regular season. Murray’s epic shot-making display in the fourth quarter of Game 2 saved Denver’s season, but he followed it up with a six-point outing, then combined for 47 points on 30 shots over Games 4 and 5 before going just 7-of-18 from the field for 16 points at the AT&T Center on Thursday. He has just three free throw attempts in the last two games, too.

White and Murray won’t always guard each other, and also play significant different roles for their respective teams on both sides of the ball. But the winner of this de facto head-to-head matchup has been a bellwether for team success throughout this series; don’t expect that to change in Game 7.

  • Which team wins the bench battle

In Game 6, Rudy Gay broke out a mini shooting slump to score 19 points and make all three of his triples off the bench in a convincing Spurs victory. Two days earlier, Will Barton, Malik Beasley, and Monte Morris totaled 38 points and eight assists between in a Nuggets blowout.

Factors like bench play are why teams fight so hard to get home-court advantage throughout the 82-game regular season grind. Role players, the thinking goes, are far more likely to show up from the friendly confines of home than the hostile territory of the road when it matters most. But Denver’s reserves were unaffected by location during the regular season, and that’s mostly proven the case in the first round, too. San Antonio’s bench, meanwhile, has been inconsistent against the Nuggets regardless of playing at home or on the road after propelling its team to the postseason over the previous seven months.

Elimination games often are decided on the periphery. If the Denver or San Antonio benches come up big, it could prove the difference between one team moving on and the other going home.