Jamal Murray could not have asked for a better look.
By the end of 97-96, Murray had at hand what could have been the winner of the match. Instead, his midrange rider was out and the San Antonio Spurs clinched the first punch with Saturday's 101-96 win in the opening game.
The second match will take place Tuesday night, but the Nuggets will not have the easy task of erasing it.
They got a triple-double from their franchise Nikola Jokic, who finished with 10 points, 14 rebounds and 14 assists. He cut and split the San Antonio defense, but a night of play from a distance of 6 points out of 28 undermined Denver's efforts. Murray finished with 17 points, but missed his six 3-point attempts at a shoot-out night.
Gary Harris finished with a team record of 20 and became alive in the fourth quarter, but the Nuggets have never managed to tie despite many opportunities. Denver will have to wait at least a few more days for its first playoff victory since 2013.
As the offensive struggled, Will Barton assumed the role of aggressor in the third quarter. He managed a score of 3, then a difficult pass to drive to reduce the deficit to 62-59. The Nuggets' three shooting points continued despite a wealth of beautiful looks, and they could not match. But before the end of the quarter, Jokic took a more determined approach on the offensive side and Denver went into the fourth, just 72-68. In total, they limited the Spurs to 13 points and woke up a crowd of Pepsi who wanted to cheer on their team.
The Nuggets could not have better defended the two stars of San Antonio, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. They combined for 12 of 36 points for 33 points, while the Nuggets' defensemen put pressure on their appearance and put them at ease.
Leading his first game as the head coach of a playoff team, Nuggets coach Michael Malone wanted to set the tone after Saturday's shootaround.
"I asked Paul Millsap to address our team this morning after filming and he was phenomenal," Malone said. "He's a guy who has 89 playoff games to his credit, who talked about enjoying the moment, looking around, having fun, being proud of what we did this year, then play and play. It's not rocket science. It's still basketball.
Despite Gregg Popovich's penchant for adjustments, Malone insisted that his offense be similar to the one that ranked seventh in the NBA throughout the regular season.
"If I try to do something different, coach in a different way, I think our players will be disabled and that they will listen to me," he said. Malone before the match. "So, it's going to be more the same. I will approach it in the same way, we will play the same way. "
Bartell said the Nuggets could not let Popovich's mind affect their mentality.
"It's the most important thing," said Barton. "You can only focus on our team."
Barton acknowledged that Spurs are known to reveal their mistakes and take advantage of defensive mistakes.
"They play in the right direction," he said. "They do the right thing, every game. And they make you pay. We know that we can not go wrong.
The defensive slog of the first quarter is transformed into a burner before the end of the second quarter. The Spurs' second period of 34 points was in line with their 59-51 lead at half-time, built on a 54% shot. The margin would have been closer if the Nuggets had not become cold from the outside, managing only 2 for 13 from 3 points.
Although the Denver offense seemed relatively tight, four starters finished the first half with at least nine points. Jokic is the only one who has not reached this threshold. Jokic has accumulated 9 assists and 7 rebounds via patented dribble transfers or Nuggets high roll-screen actions.
They did a great job limiting DeRozan and Aldridge, limiting the combo of stars to just 15 points in the first half. It was San Antonio's pace of the 3-point line that kept the Nuggets defense out of the way.