Through three playoff games, the San Antonio Spurs have done what they do better than anyone: suffocate the life out of opponents by playing fundamentally sound basketball. On Thursday, with their series tied at 1-1 with the Denver Nuggets, the Spurs shot the lights out, finishing with 52 percent shooting from the floor and a stunning 53 percent from three. Though the Spurs found success this season by feasting in the dead spots of the mid-range, their 118-108 Game 3 was a result of the simplest strategy in basketball: go to the hoop.
Nobody embodied the tactic more than second-year point guard Derrick White, who had the best performance of his career while repeatedly beating Nuggets defenders to the rim. White finished with 36 points on 15-of-21 shooting, and was a ludicrous 12-of-14 from inside 10 feet.
White started steaming hot on Thursday, racking up 26 points in the first half to keep San Antonio ahead despite Denver pushing back with a 36-point second quarter. His first-half reel is a cornucopia of dribble drives, spin moves, and awkward angle floaters that the Nuggets simply had no answer for. White shot 11-of-15 in the first 24 minutes, with the majority of his buckets coming from his shifty handles and understanding of how to get around multiple Denver defenders:
29 percent of White’s buckets on the night happened after 7 or more dribbles, and 43 percent occurred with a defender guarding him either tightly (within two to four feet) or very tightly (within two feet). It didn’t matter who Denver threw at him, they couldn’t keep up with White’s explosiveness off the dribble, and White especially got some good looks in transition, including a three-point play with about nine minutes remaining in the game that gave San Antonio a cushion they would not relinquish:
Though the Spurs got help from some other, more famous names (LaMarcus Aldridge finished with 18 and 11, while DeMar DeRozan poured in 25 points of his own), it’s White who has been a revelation so far through three games. He’s averaging 22.5 points per game in the series, on 72.5 percent true-shooting. He’s only gotten better as the series has gone on, too: he knocked down 16 points in Game 1, then followed that up with 17 points in Game 2.
Now, White has his signature game, and it’s fair to wonder if he’s making a playoff-aided leap like previous Spurs role-player-turned-stars have in the past. I’m not saying White is the next Kawhi Leonard, but give San Antonio credit for unearthing a playoff difference-maker with the 29th pick of the 2017 NBA Draft. All the Spurs have to do now is hold serve at home in Games 4 and 6, and they will be heading into the second round after a one-year absence.