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Nuggets-Spurs Series Betting Preview: Is There Actually Value in Fading Denver’s Inexperience?

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Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Nikola Jokic, LaMarcus Aldridge

  • The Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs tip off their first-round series on Saturday (10:30 p.m. ET on ESPN).
  • Matt Moore deciphers whether there's value in fading Denver's inexperience in the NBA playoffs.

No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 7 San Antonio Spurs

Odds: Nuggets -200 | Spurs +170

Living in Denver and seeing the Nuggets more than any other team, I have tried to find what would be their downfall for months.

They’re a young team; this will be their first playoff appearance with this core. Everyone expects the Nuggets to fail, and they are clearly going to be a trendy pick for the upset here as you can tell by such a tight line for a 2-7 matchup.

I want to be able to tell you I can go with that mindset; that the Nuggets will be revealed as clown frauds. It’s easier to pick against the team that hasn’t done it before than risk believing in a team built around having its center as its point guard and its point guard as its shooting guard.

There’s so much risk in not seeing how this team could be defeated.

The Nuggets could lose, but if they do, it’s just going to be one of those things. Toughness. Physicality. Having an extra gear. Things which you can’t predict or interpret when you haven’t seen it.

I’ve maintained this consistently: We don’t know if Denver is going to be a good playoff team or not. The Nuggets could fold under the physicality and pressure, or they could rise to the occasion. Nikola Jokic could be brilliant or completely shrink. There’s just no way to know, and their seeding puts them in the precarious position of having expectations attached as well.

But I will tell you this: The matchup says you need to hammer Denver.

The Nuggets went 2-2 against San Antonio this season. Their last loss in the series came in March, during the failed experiment to try and get Isaiah Thomas on the floor. I cannot stress how disastrous this was for Denver. It completely ruined the rotations of one of the best bench units in the league, and everyone suffered for it. In that game, Thomas played 16 minutes and was a minus-5, while Mason Plumlee was a minus-18. In the eight minutes those two shared the floor, the Nuggets were beaten by 70 points per 100 possessions.

It’s not even something that really makes sense, but Thomas’ impact on Denver was undeniable, forcing Michael Malone to make a personally difficult decision to remove Thomas from the rotation. Denver’s metrics soon stabilized.

All this is to say: Denver probably would’ve gone 3-1 against San Antonio without Thomas’ impact. And while the results of regular-season matchups don’t matter, the matchups do. Every Spur except Jakob Poeltl and Patty Mills had an on-court net rating worse than +1.0 vs. Denver this season, with DeMar DeRozan the only other player with a positive on-court net rating.

LaMarcus Aldridge had a 112 defensive rating against Denver this season, which you would think was an outlier if it weren’t in fact in line with his overall season marks. This has gone under the radar: The Spurs bleed with Aldridge on the floor.

The Spurs will send a hard-double at Jokic, and it might disrupt him initially. There’s value on the Spurs in Game 1 because of this: The Nuggets are going to be shaky in Game 1. I actually think there’s value in the Spurs on the first half-money line and +5.5 for the series-opening game. But as the Nuggets settle and adjust, they should clearly create separation and prove they’re better.

The Spurs simply don’t create enough efficient offense. They’re the best 3-point shooting team in the league in terms of percentage and the worst in terms of producing those shots per game. They knock down great shots all the time … they just don’t create enough.

The Nuggets, meanwhile, has versatility and playmaking all over. And Jokic is simply too good at figuring things out as they go to shut down over an entire series.

I like Denver for the series, even if takes longer than a 2-7 matchup typically does.

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