SAN ANTONIO — The Denver Nuggets are on vacation, but they’ll be doing their homework.
They got a huge lesson at the feet of the San Antonio Spurs over 11 days, one that they can use when they reconvene in the fall.
The biggest lesson in their 4-1 defeat in the Western Conference quarterfinals is that it takes a lot to get to the next level. The Spurs have done it, and the Nuggets, even in defeat, admire them.
“They play together. They play hard,” Nuggets forward Kenyon Martin said after the Nuggets lost Game 5 on Wednesday night, 99-89. “Heart of champions. They didn’t win it a couple of years ago for nothing. They still have pretty much their core they won it with, and they added a couple of pieces. They’re a good ballclub. They play together well, they’re well coached, so you have to respect that. You have to take your hat off to that. We got beat by a better team.”
The Nuggets also got beat by an experienced team. Even though there was only one blowout in this series — the Spurs’ 104-76 win in Game 2 — San Antonio never panicked, and the Spurs never seemed to be in any danger of not advancing, even while the Nuggets hung tough in their other three losses in the series.
The Spurs not only tapped their talents to get past Denver, they called upon their previous runs through playoffs to make quick work of the Nuggets.
They understand that May and June are a time to forego the extracurricular activities and concentrate on the playoffs.
“You have to cut out a lot of things,” said San Antonio forward Robert Horry, who has been on championship teams with the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers. “You need to stay at home. Whenever you can get a chance to rest your body and your legs, you need to take it. I learned the first couple of years playing with (Hakeem Olajuwon) and Otis Thorpe (that) you really need to rest during the playoffs.”
Spurs fans are relaxed right now because their team took care of business early. San Antonio stepped on Denver’s throat and didn’t let up. Unlike the case for Colorado Avalanche fans, there was no reason to fret after the Spurs took a 3-1 series lead. Since 1999, the Avs were in that position six times, and four times the series went to a seventh game — and the Avs lost two of those.
The Spurs realized that giving Denver any hope would have been dangerous. The Nuggets, despite their two losses at home in this series, are formidable at the Pepsi Center, and had they stolen another game in San Antonio, the chances were good this series would have gone the distance.
The Spurs ended that scenario by taking over in the fourth quarter of Game 5. They led 71-67 going into the last 12 minutes, and that’s when they got serious. After turning the ball over 16 times in the first three quarters, San Antonio had one turnover in the fourth. The defense stepped up, too, forcing the Nuggets to miss 12 of their first 14 shots in the quarter.
Denver shot just 43.9 percent in the game and 36.4 percent in the fourth quarter.
The Spurs also got a lot of help from their role players. Glenn Robinson, a non-factor in the series, hit a key 3-pointer to put the Spurs up 80-72 with 7 minutes, 36 seconds left in Game 5.
When Tim Duncan struggled in Game 3, Manu Ginobili stepped up and scored 32. Horry hit a couple of big 3-pointers in that game, and he hit some big 3s in the clincher, including two in the third quarter to keep San Antonio in the lead.
“That’s why they call him Big-Game Rob,” Nuggets guard Greg Buckner said.
When the Spurs shut down the Nuggets’ scorers, no one else could fill the void. Carmelo Anthony scored 28 and 25 points in Games 4 and 5, respectively, but when his team needed someone else to take over while he was being double-teamed, it didn’t happen.
That’s one of the reasons the Spurs are playing the Seattle SuperSonics in the second round.
“We played a great team,” Nuggets head coach George Karl said. “We shook them in Game 1, but they shook off the rust and got better after that. We had two games in Denver which were crucial to us, and we didn’t get either of them.”