Torrey Craig may have saved Denver’s season tonight.
In a must-win to keep their playoff hopes from slipping away, the Denver Nuggets earned a clutch 117-103 victory on the road over the San Antonio Spurs. Nikola Jokic dominated in every facet with 29 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists, and Jamal Murray bounced back in a big way with 24 points and six assists of his own.
But the real story was Torrey Craig. Michael Malone chose to start the second year wing over the struggling Will Barton, and the decision paid major dividends. Craig added 18 points and eight rebounds of his own, and his ability to stay efficient (5/7 on three-pointers) and harass DeMar DeRozan and Derrick White (27 combined points) changed the course of this series.
Jokic began the game aggressively seeking his own offense in the paint, earning six quick points. On the other end, a few miscommunications between Craig and his back line defenders led to paint points for the Spurs and threes for Forbes and Aldridge.
Very little went Denver’s way to start this game, and San Antonio took advantage of every miscue. San Antonio’s efficiency was a byproduct of executing their offense to perfection, and the Nuggets didn’t execute on their end, and it led to a 34-22 deficit after one quarter.
Will Barton entered the second quarter with a three-pointer out of the pick and roll, to the delight of Nuggets fans everywhere, and a Morris layup in transition cut earned a quick timeout from Gregg Popovich.
Barton followed that up with another made three and some great creation in the middle pick and roll with Nikola Jokic, but the story of the second quarter continued to be the Nuggets refusing to stay in front of their assignment defensively. In addition, Patty Mills took advantage of Monte Morris on the perimeter and baited him into two three-point fouls in succession. Still, the Nuggets were able to grind out possessions through Jokic, who played bully ball with LaMarcus Aldridge on one possession for a tough And-1 layup.
Denver’s defense locked in a bit midway through the second quarter. Some questionable shooting decisions by the Spurs and some lucky breaks for the Nuggets helped Denver close the gap and actually take a lead following an additional And-1 by Jokic. The Murray-Jokic two-man game was basically all Denver had to close the half, but it was enough to get Denver back into a San Antonio stalemate at half, tied at 54 apiece.
The second half began with more back and forth scoring between both teams. Millsap finally got a shot to fall, but the game plan continued to be the Murray-Jokic two-man game followed by Jokic posting up. Craig also hit a clutch three at the shot clock buzzer to extend Denver’s lead to four early in the third quarter. Murray was great in the third quarter, hitting some tough shots including a great dunk on Rudy Gay.
The Nuggets maintained this pressure for the majority of the third quarter, and Monte Morriscontinued where Murray left off, helping Denver extend its lead to 91-79 through the third quarter.
The fourth quarter involved a Nuggets lineup featuring the four bench players and Torrey Craig, basically five bench players, and the Spurs countered in the same way. I was surprised to not see LaMarcus Aldridge out there, and the Nuggets made the Spurs pay by maintaining their advantage. Craig continued to stroke it from outside, and the entire bench unit played with great playoff poise. The only reason the Spurs stayed in the game was repeatedly attacking Plumlee in the pick and roll, who couldn’t stay in front of anyone. That has been a trend the entire series, and it led to a timeout by Michael Malone while up 11 with just under eight minutes to go.
The Nuggets closed the game with a Murray-Harris-Beasley-Craig-Jokic lineup. Popovich, clearly conceding this one with the Nuggets up by 15ish, left LaMarcus Aldridge on the bench for the whole fourth quarter. Torrey Craig turned into the best 3&D wing of all-time in the quarter as well, swallowing up a Bryn Forbes shot at the rim, stealing the ball from DeRozan, and hitting the shots he needed to hit. The Spurs couldn’t hit a shot for a long time, and things turned ugly for San Antonio when DeRozan fired the ball at referee Scott Foster in frustration.
After this moment, the Spurs emptied their bench, and garbage time ensued for the final three minutes. It tilted in San Antonio’s favor, but the Nuggets did their work early enough that they could make some mistakes. With three minutes left in the game, this one was OVAH!
First quarters have been a nightmare the entire series, and tonight was no different
The Nuggets being minus-31 in the four first quarters this season is a startling trend. Even with the lineup change today, the Spurs have always been the team to punch first. The Nuggets have never led after the first quarter, and being down by around eight points on average doesn’t help the cause. If the Nuggets can figure out how to start fast in Game 5, they may be able to take control of this series.
Nikola Jokic came to play today
29 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists from Joker today. What a performance from the franchise centerpiece. The Nuggets would have gone back to the well more frequently had they needed to, but Jokic was just so dominant in the first three quarters, clearly the best player on the floor and making everything happen for the Nuggets.
Lots of attention has gone to
And so did Jamal Murray
22 points and six assists for Murray in Game 4, bouncing back after a terrible Game 3, was a massive flip. Murray made his presence felt in all four quarters and outperformed Derrick White when Denver needed it most.
But the big story was Torrey Craig and the starting lineup shift
Will Barton had not played well for awhile, and the Nuggets needed an energy boost in the worst way at small forward. I thought they would go with Malik Beasley, but Malone went with his gut and started Torrey Craig. The decision didn’t pay off immediately, but throughout the game, Craig’s defensive energy wore on DeRozan and Derrick White, who was basically invisible for most of the contest. Those two scorers combined for 27 points today, a far cry from the 61 they scored on Thursday in Game 3.
This was the difference in the game. Craig had 18 points and 8 rebounds, shot 5/7 from behind the three-point line, and basically saved Denver’s series. Jokic was awesome, Murray bounced back, but Craig was the key.
Can Denver continue this momentum going forward in Game 5? Time will tell.