Basketball fans of a certain age will remember a time not so long ago when the San Antonio Spurs were just as reviled for their steady greatness as they were respected for it. Around that time, the league kept producing pretty new things that seemed custom-built to capture the hearts and minds of the next generation of fans, and the damn Spurs just kept showing up to the party with plenty of mud to throw around. Kevin Garnett’s Timberwolves, Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns, and Dirk Nowitzki’s Dallas Mavericks all took turns getting snuffed by Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ Big Three. They were there to throw a pall over LeBron James’s inaugural trip to the Finals, and also to crush the pre-dynasty Warriors just as Steph Curry was donning the mantle of a folk hero. The latest darlings to find themselves in San Antonio’s grim sights are the Denver Nuggets, and specifically their doughy king Nikola Jokic.
The highly entertaining first-round playoff series between the Nuggets and Spurs advanced to a seventh game last night thanks to a 120-103 Spurs victory. The Spurs, facing elimination on their home court, did what they always do: sternly absorb their opponent’s best shot, and then gently place that opponent into a freshly dug grave.
In an alternate timeline in which the Nuggets did not meet the Spurs in the first round, Jokic would probably be spending today basking in his first true Signature Playoff Performance. Jokic, who is averaging 23 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists through his very first playoff series, had one of the best games of his career last night. The big sweet lug is always more willing to set up a teammate than get his own bucket, but on Thursday he took 30 shots and seemed on a mission to prove that he is the kind of superstar capable of carrying his team through an elimination game. He made 19 of those shots, and finished the game with 43 points to go along with the customary 12 rebounds and nine assists. It was as loud as statement games get, and a clear announcement that Jokic, for all his idiosyncrasies, can really do this shit when it matters.
Do you think the Spurs give a damn about that? Did they give a damn when Dirk Nowitzki dropped 42 and 18 on them while trying to hold off elimination in Game 5 of the 2001 conference semis? Or when LeBron met them on his ascent to godhood? Or when Steve Nash was trying to mount his bloodied, heroic charge to the Finals? They did not give a damn about any of that!
The Spurs expressed their disdain for Jokic’s would-be moment in perfectly Spursian fashion. They didn’t spoil the party by gooning up the game and getting under Jokic’s skin, or by breaking hearts with a buzzer-beater, but by putting the ball through the hoop with agonizing and implausible frequency. The Spurs shot 57 percent from the floor in Game 6, and did so with cruel simplicity. They just kept dribbling the ball at the basket and putting it through the hoop. On possessions when they couldn’t quite get all they way to the rim, they rose up and hit mid-range jumpers. This is how you send a bright young thing home with a few fresh bruises on its face:
Now the Spurs get to go back to Denver for Game 7 on Saturday night, and we’ll all get to see if the Nuggets and Jokic have learned a valuable lesson about what it takes to actually kill and bury the Spurs. When you meet this team in the playoffs, even a version that has Bryn Forbes and Derrick White in the starting lineup, you will need more than one Big Moment to survive.