The San Antonio Spurs wrapped up their annual rodeo road trip -- a nine-game journey for 2012 -- in Denver on Thursday night, but veteran centerpieces Tony Parker and Tim Duncan looked well-rested. That's because they were well-rested. Greg Popovich elected to sit both players on Tuesday, and the Spurs lost to the Portland Trail Blazers by 40 points, then he abruptly decided to reinsert the duo into the starting lineup against the Denver Nuggets, rather than rest them through the All-Star break. Duncan played 29 minutes and produced 18 points, nine rebounds, three assists and three blocks, and Parker logged 35 minutes on his way to a 16-point, 12-assist double-double, as the Spurs collected a comfortable 114-99 win.
Wait, what? Popovich rolled over for Portland and willingly snapped an 11-game winning streak on Tuesday, all in the name of proper rest, and then marched his most important vets back onto the court for big minutes two nights later? Sure, the Portland game was the second of a back-to-back, but the decision initially felt more like a calculated long-term strategy, rather than a short con to take down the depleted and downtrodden Nuggets. In any case, San Antonio dispatched the Nuggets with relative ease.
Denver limped into the All-Star break and had to compete with a skeleton crew against the Spurs. Nene (calf) and Danilo Gallinari (back) sat out, and star point guard Ty Lawson (ankle) added his name to the inactive list just hours before the game, so George Karl turned to the 10 remaining active players for effort and energy. At the outset of the game, he could find little of either. The Nuggets looked unfocused and and impotent in the first quarter. They hit 5-19 shots and dished out a paltry two assists, while the Spurs jumped out to a commanding 31-15 lead behind 13-25 shooting and 10 assists as a team. The trend continued in the second quarter, and by halftime San Antonio built a 26-point margin with more points (65) than any other Denver opponent has scored in the first half this season.
In the first half, the visitors built a 26-8 advantage on points in the paint with big efforts from DeJuan Blair and Tony Parker. Blair crashed the offensive glass and tethered himself to the lane for five of his 12 rebounds and 16 quick points on 8-10 shooting, ultimately matching his career-high with 28 points. Parker played his patented brand of basketball and sliced into the lane for stealthy finishes and pinpoint passes. Andre Miller tried to keep the Nuggets afloat -- he was the only Denver player to shoot over 50 percent from the field in the first half and finished with 20 points and seven assists -- but even he could not prevent the Spurs from building and maintaining a huge lead.
Denver's frustrating fall back to Earth after a 14-5 start to the season led Pepsi Center fans to grasp at any signs of life in the game. When Timofey Mozgov's dunk cut the Spurs' lead to 18 points with 3:06 remaining in the third quarter, the home crowd met the moment with serious cheers. When San Antonio immediately re-established the margin at 24 during the next two minutes of game action, dejected Nuggets TV announcer Scott Hastings cautioned viewers that "momentum is a fickle love." Fickle, indeed. Denver never led, and the deficit proved too much for them to overcome.
Even with a 34-14 advantage on points in the paint in the second half and a strong performance by Corey Brewer (23 points) in transition, Denver never got its high-paced act together. Firecracker rookie Kenneth Faried only scored four points, Mozgov added eight, Julyan Stone put in nine, and Jordan Hamilton failed to score after shooting 0-7.
Once again on offense, Tony Parker used screens to perfection on high pick and rolls and routinely disrupted defensive rotations by slithering into the paint. Perimeter role players like Richard Jefferson, Matt Bonner and Danny Green (6-12 for 16 points, six rebounds and two assists) benefited from Parker's work and shared the ball well along the arc.
On the night, San Antonio hit 13-27 threes and went back to the well whenever the Nuggets made a second half push. Denver cut the lead to 12 with 6:42 left, and fans got excited again, but not for long. As we already know, "momentum is a fickle love."
San Antonio cruised the rest of the way and closed out its nine-game rodeo road trip with an impressive 8-1 record. The Spurs enter the break with the second-best record (24-10) in the Western Conference. The Nuggets suffered their 12th loss in their last 16 games, and are now just 18-17 overall -- currently on the outside of the playoff picture, looking in.