Gregg Popovich and Michael Malone have a healthy respect for one another, but it’s unlikely the two NBA coaches will be worried about that Friday night.
Popovich, who began his 26th season as coach of San Antonio, leads his Spurs into Denver against Malone’s Nuggets in their home opener. Both teams are coming off impressive wins Wednesday night and look to build on that momentum.
San Antonio thumped Orlando, 123-97, with an ensemble performance while Denver got a measure of revenge against Phoenix, beating the Suns, 110-98. Phoenix swept the injury-depleted Nuggets in the second round of the playoffs last June.
Denver is healthier, although not whole, with Jamal Murray still rehabbing from his ACL tear suffered in April. Forward Aaron Gordon, who came over in a trade with the Magic in March, looks 100 percent and Will Barton has his legs back after struggling with knee and ankle injuries in the spring.
Most significant is the health of reigning MVP Nikola Jokic, who recently became a father for the first time. Jokic is the key to the Nuggets’ offense, which he showed in Wednesday’s win. He finished with 27 points and 13 rebounds, and could have had more than two assists if his teammates knocked down open looks.
Denver has championship aspirations despite Murray’s absence, thanks to a deep roster. Michael Porter Jr. signed an extension before the season and had 15 points while tying a career-high five assists against the Suns.
“I told him that in the locker room, he was out there diming tonight,” Barton said of Porter’s five assists. “It just shows the growth and maturity in his game.”
Gordon, who also signed an extension, had 12 points and a huge block in the fourth quarter that helped the Nuggets keep the lead.
The Spurs will test Denver’s defense with a collective effort. In the past San Antonio has had one player to feature in the offense, whether it was David Robinson, Tim Duncan or Kawhi Leonard. This past offseason saw the departures of DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills, leaving a group of supporting players playing in a free-flowing offense.
On Wednesday Devin Vassell came off the bench and led the Spurs with a career-high 19 points, and the second-leading scorer, Lonnie Walker IV (17 points), also came off the bench. San Antonio had seven players score in double figures.
“It was a lot of fun,” said Derrick White, who scored 16. “Get out, run, make a play for yourself or a teammate. The crowd’s into it. It was a lot of fun out there.”
The Spurs will have a tougher time with Denver than a rebuilding Orlando team. The Nuggets can also get scoring from different areas, but the bench is still a work in progress. Denver’s reserves struggled in the preseason and that continued in the second quarter Wednesday night, when the Suns scored 38 points.
Collectively the bench was a minus-52 but played better in the second half when Malone kept one or two starters in the game with reserves. The starters were a plus-112.
–Field Level Media