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    Hard to bet against Popovich, battle-scarred Spurs in a Game Seven

    Apr 26, 2019
    PHOTO: AP
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    CHICAGO - After a nip and tuck battle through six games, the round-one Western Conference playoffs series between No.2 Denver against No.7 San Antonio is a dead heat.

    Although the Nuggets have outscored the Spurs by a nose overall, 646-637, both teams' shooting percentages mirror each other.

    The Spurs are slightly better at converting their field goals, 47.9 percent to 47 percent. But the Nuggets are sinking their 3s more effectively, 39.1 percent to 35.3 percent. Free throw shooting is a virtual push - 75.2 percent for San Antonio and 73.2 for Denver.

    The exciting back and forth between the veteran-laden Spurs against the young and talented Nuggets culminates Sunday at the Pepsi Center in Denver where Game 7 will be played to decide who will advance to the West semis and play the Portland Trail Blazers.

    Of the 132 Game 7s played in the history of the NBA playoffs, only 28 have been won by the road team, which means the Spurs possess a mere 21 percent chance of punching the upset.

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    Playing at home, where their record was 34-7 during the regular season and 2-1 in the postseason so far, must be reassuring for the Nuggets. And there is added comfort in the knowledge that their best player - Nikola Jokic - is having the time of his life.

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    Nicknamed The Joker, the 7-foot Serbian is no laughing matter for the Spurs as the 250-pound center is averaging 23.5 points, 11.7 rebounds and nine assists per. Using his ballerina feet to elude defenders while weaponizing his silky hands, Jokic is swishing 52.5 percent of his shots.

    The Nuggets own a decided edge in made 3-pointers, 66-41. They were especially lethal in their Games 4 and 5 victories, pelting the Spurs with 29 threes while holding San Antonio to just 12, a staggering 51-point advantage.

    The key for the Spurs is to silence those long-range bombs like they did in Game 6 where they held Denver to just 6-of-24 beyond the arc on the way to a 120-103 triumph at the AT&T Center.

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    Jamal Murray has been hot and cold in this series, but if he catches fire he can burn down San Antonio all by himself.

    But in a Game 7, when all the marbles are at stake, when it's win or go home, when the Spalding weighs a few pounds heavier, and pressure is suffocating, I pick the Spurs to prevail.

    Why?

    Because they're more experienced.

    DeMar DeRozan, who leads the team in scoring with 22.5, has been to three previous Game 7s, going 2-1. He's not the 3-point sniper that Murray is, but he can slay the Nuggets through a thousand mid-range jumpers.

    LaMarcus Aldridge doesn't have the athletic gene of Nokic, but the 13-year veteran, who is norming 21.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per, can mitigate whatever damage Nokic will inflict on Sunday.

    Denver takes pride in having a deep bench that includes Will Barton and Malik Beasly, but the Spurs have old hands in Marco Belineli and Patty Mills, NBA champions who both have a Game 7 in their resume.

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    But the Spurs' biggest advantage is the genius with the clipboard - head coach Gregg Popovich.

    Game 7 is less about stats and more about intangibles. It's not necessarily what weapons you have, it's about how you use them. It's not about best-laid plans, it's about adjustments.

    And when it comes to those X's and O's, no one is better.

    Popovich has coached six Game 7s. His record is 3-3. He lost his last one in 2015 against the Los Angeles Clippers, but he won the big one, on the road in New Orleans in 2008.

    At age 70, coach Pop has lost some of the spring in his steps. But the temper is still quick, and the brain remains brilliant, the same brain that will hatch a Game 7 victory.

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    PHOTO: AP
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