It’s one thing to enter the altitude of Denver on the second night of a back-to-back, but it’s a completely different thing to do it with a M.A.S.H. unit missing six key players after a brutal night in Oakland.
Gary Harris had two steals in the final 30 seconds and scored on each of them to cement the Spurs’ fate in a 102-98 Nuggets victory Friday night.
San Antonio was without LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Danny Green and Boris Diaw — most of them resting — and while the Spurs held their own for most of the night, Denver’s youth was just a bit too much to sustain during a tiring stretch.
“It’s very important (for the team to get rest). Unfortunately LaMarcus (Aldridge) got a little injured and we are locked into the position we are in,” Tim Duncan said. “Pop (Gregg Popovich) is going to do what he has always done and make sure we are fresh and healthy for the playoffs.
“Fortunately these games don’t matter as much as they usually do. We just need to be ready to rock when the playoffs start and I think we will be ready for that.”
Friday’s game had no effect on the Spurs’ regular season — it was a giveaway after what transpired in Oracle Arena Thursday night. San Antonio is settled in as the No. 2 seed in the conference, and Pop’s decision to hold out all major contributors — with the exception of Duncan — is all part of the team’s maintenance plan.
What transpired over the course of the game felt like a rec-league matchup — where the fundamentally sound “old guys” just pushed and plodded their way through a more experienced game plan to keep the young, inexperienced players off their backs. But it didn’t last the full 48 minutes.
Duncan dropped a season-high 21 points while David West and Kevin Martin went for 17 apiece to pace the Spurs, but the Nuggets’ young front line and speedy backcourt had San Antonio on its heels all night.
Denver big men Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic combined for 29 points, 24 rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks, and promising rookie point guard Emmanuel Mudiay put up 20 points, six rebounds and five assists to lead the way for the Nuggets. But it was Harris’ play at the end of the night that made the difference.
The second-year man from Michigan State intercepted a pass intended for Kevin Martin near mid-court with 30 seconds left in the game and was fouled immediately, then hit two free throws. On the very next possession — one the Spurs desperately needed to convert into points — Patty Mills mishandled a dribble-hand-off from Duncan, and Harris took it the length of the floor for a game-sealing dunk.
And yet, this may have been more than a rest stop for certain players along the way. The Spurs welcome Golden State to town Sunday with an undefeated home record on the line and only two games left in San Antonio during the regular season. Meanwhile, the Warriors will enter that matchup with a chance to break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ 72-10 record — barring a disastrous loss to the dilapidated Memphis Grizzlies on Saturday.
The Spurs, whether or not you believe them, will not be buying into the hype.
“I think it’s important to the aspect of us needing to work on some things to get ready for the playoffs, but outside of that, it’s just another game,” Kevin Martin explained. “I don’t think either team can send a message to either team. Both teams respect one another and both teams just want to get better at what they do best, because we could potentially see each other in the playoffs.”
Finding a balance between rhythm and rest is something close to an art form at this point of the season. And while the team should be able to sleep soundly with a loss that won’t affect its place in the standings, the competitive juices won’t stop flowing.
Surely echoing the sentiments of the few who happened to put on a uniform Friday night, Popovich wasn’t satisfied.
“I would’ve rather won,” he said.
Regardless, it’s on to the next one — Sunday against the defending champs.
*Top image: Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs talks with Jonathon Simmons #17 of the San Antonio Spurs during the game against the Denver Nuggets on April 8, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images.