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Spurs’ frustration boils over, and a series is tied

San Antonio Express News logo San Antonio Express News 4/21/2019 By Jeff McDonald, Staff writer

Jamal Murray drove the lane and dunked, talked trash to Rudy Gay, and mean-mugged for the camera.

Nikola Jokic threw in a grab-bag of Serbian hook shots and jumpers, and generally owned the AT&T Center paint as if he were the Bexar County judge.

Michael Malone’s lineup gambit worked, with new starter Torrey Craig and new sub Will Barton each contributing their best games of the series.

BOX SCORE: NUGGETS 117, SPURS 103

It says something about the Spurs — in a 117-103 Game 4 loss to Denver on Saturday that knotted the Western Conference first-round series at 2-2 — that their most noteworthy moment involved a ball that landed nowhere near the basket.

With 5:01 left in a game that already had come unspooled, Spurs guard DeMar DeRozan was whistled for an offensive foul. He wheeled and flung the ball in the direction of referee Scott Foster near the sideline. A technical and ejection followed, a fitting end to an afternoon of wasted opportunity.

“Nobody wanted to lose,” Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge said. “Everybody was a little frustrated.”

Having ridden a career night from point guard Derrick White to a resounding victory in Game 3, the Spurs arrived Saturday with a chance to strengthen their chokehold on the series.

Instead, after the Nuggets’ first victory in San Antonio since 2012, the Spurs have gifted home-court advantage back to Denver. Game 5 is on Tuesday at the Pepsi Center.

“I think our guys understood how we needed to play, and they answered the call,” Malone said.

Jokic romped to 29 points and 12 rebounds, and narrowly missed his second triple-double of the series with eight assists. Murray, whose up-and-down play has typified the Nuggets’ fortunes, scored 24 points on 8-of-14 shooting for his best all-around game yet.

Craig, meanwhile, punctuated his first career playoff start with 18 points while hitting 5 of 7 from 3-point range. The player he replaced, Barton, scored 12 points off the bench and went 3-of-3 from 3-point range after opening the series 1 of 13.

In short, Denver — perhaps for the first time in the series — demonstrated why it is the No. 2 seed.

“I can’t put into words the magnitude of this win,” Denver forward Paul Millsap said. “We have to keep that chip on our shoulder every single day.”

After the game, coach Gregg Popovich sounded like a man who also wanted to chuck a ball at somebody.

He bemoaned the Spurs’ defense as “poor,” praised the Nuggets for playing “harder and smarter,” and castigated his team’s laissez faire approach to Game 4 as “very, very disappointing.”

Something else was in play as well. The Nuggets outscored the Spurs by 30 points from the 3-point line, and in this day and age that is often the name of the game.

The Spurs outshot Denver overall, outrebounded the Nuggets for the fourth-straight game, scored 60 points in the paint, turned the ball over a series-low nine times, and attempted 32 free throws.

The game in a nutshell: Denver hit 15 of 31 from beyond the arc. The Spurs slumped to 5 of 17.

“They wanted it more than we did, and that came out in their physicality, their movement, their communication,” Popovich said. “We just followed them around. We acted like it was just going to happen.”

After a first quarter in which the Spurs took a 12-point lead and seemed on the verge of choking out the Nuggets, Denver climbed back into the game early in the second, with Murray, Barton and Craig alternating buckets.

The Nuggets got rolling even more in the third quarter, hitting 11 of 17 field goals, 5 of 9 from the 3-point stripe, and 10 of 11 from the foul line. A Jokic 3-pointer with 9:04 remaining in the quarter put the Nuggets ahead 64-62. They would never trail again.

“They needed the game,” Aldridge said. “Their back was against the wall and they played like it.”

Aldridge had 24 points on 10-of-18 shooting before taking a seat for the duration of the fourth quarter with the game out of hand. DeRozan had 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting before being tossed by Foster.

The NBA is expected to review DeRozan’s actions today, but a suspension is considered unlikely as the ball landed nowhere near the official.

“Frustration,” is how DeRozan described the moments after he was whistled for barreling over Gary Harris. “I thought it was a bad call. A combination of both.”

If any Spurs player had reason to be frustrated, it was Gay. Meant to be the team’s primary bench scorer, Gay missed all seven of his shot attempts in Game 4 and was part of the collective no-show from the team’s second unit.

Gay left the AT&T Center without speaking to reporters.

White, the hero of Game 3 after pumping in 36 points, found life at the center of the Nuggets’ game plan to be a little more difficult.

Guarded by Harris instead of Murray, White scored just eight points and turned the ball over four times in Game 4.

“I think they were the hungrier team,” White said. “They got all the 50-50 balls. We weren’t hungry enough.”

Hunger should not be a problem as the Spurs return to the Pepsi Center on Tuesday.

Their season is back in the balance. The young Nuggets have regained their footing and are gaining confidence and experience by the game.

A back-and-forth series shifts back to the Rocky Mountains, and there is no telling what to predict from two teams that have hemorrhaged unpredictability.

“We put ourselves in a good position, with an opportunity to close out homecourt, and we didn’t,” Aldridge said. “It’s pretty frustrating the way we played.”

If the ball hurtling toward the general vicinity of a referee said anything Saturday, it’s that the Spurs are back to being the team in a bad mood.

Maybe that will serve them well in Game 5.

jmcdonald@express-news.net

Related slideshow: NBA Playoffs 2019 (Provided by imagn)

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