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Spurs’ postseason push hits big challenge in Denver

Dec 11, 2021; San Antonio, Texas, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) prepares to drive to the basket while defended by San Antonio Spurs forward Thaddeus Young (30) during the second half at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The San Antonio Spurs made the playoffs 22 straight times under coach Gregg Popovich but have been absent from the postseason the last two seasons.

They have a chance to end that drought if they can hold onto one of the last two spots for the play-in tournament in the Western Conference. San Antonio leads the Los Angeles Lakers by two games with four to play for the 10th seed, and all four of its games are against winning teams.

The first challenge is Tuesday night when the Spurs (33-45) visit the Denver Nuggets (47-32).

San Antonio split the season series with the Lakers but holds the tiebreaker over them based on better conference record, so the magic number to clinch is two games. The Spurs are not focusing on Los Angeles in the final week of the season.

“As long as we just take care of business and not really focus on anybody else, just focus on ourselves each and every game, we’ll be fine,” forward Keldon Johnson said after a win over Portland on Sunday.

San Antonio won the game without starters Dejounte Murray (non-COVID illness) and Jakob Poeltl (back) but hope to have both available for Tuesday night. Murray has missed two straight games while Poeltl was a late scratch in the 113-92 win over the Trail Blazers.

The Spurs have won four straight on the road, where they have a better record than at home. San Antonio is 17-21 on the road, where it will play three of its final four games, and 16-24 at home.

Denver has won two of the three previous meetings with the Spurs and a third will bolster its chances of staying out of the play-in tournament. The Nuggets are trying to hold off Minnesota (45-34), which sits seventh but holds the tiebreaker.

Denver can afford to lose one of its last three games, all at home, and still avoid dropping below the Timberwolves. The Nuggets improved their outlook — and helped the Spurs — by going to Los Angeles and beating the Lakers on Sunday.

Will Barton had 25 points in the win, including two of his team-high six 3-pointers in the fourth quarter that gave Denver separation. He did it with a sore right knee that nearly kept him sidelined, but the importance of the game won out.

“We still got some ground to make up,” Barton said.

It appears unlikely that the Nuggets will have their best two players besides Nikola Jokic available for the stretch. Jamal Murray (ACL surgery) and Michael Porter Jr. (back surgery) have both increased their workload, with both going through rigorous drills before games, but the team has given no indication that either will play.

Despite not having them, Jokic has thrived and has become a favorite to win league MVP for the second straight season with stats that put him in the top 10 in the league. Jokic is averaging 26.8 points (ninth), 13.7 rebounds (second) and 8.0 assists (eighth).

–Field Level Media