Spurs’ Keldon Johnson misses career high, but takes another step forward


The man Gregg Popovich calls “a 7ft Larry Bird” was cooking. It didn’t bode well for Spurs.

Nikola Jokic of Denver – the reigning NBA MVP – had 32 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists as the Nuggets held off Spurs 102-96 on Friday at Ball Arena.

Subsequently, Jokic impressed more than one Spurs newcomer.

“He’s the MVP for a reason,” Keldon Johnson said. “He’s the best in the league.

For much of Friday night, Johnson, 22, was there with him.

At halftime, Johnson had 18 points – the most defining half of his career – and looked poised to set a new career record.

His previous best of 29 came against Houston on January 14.

Johnson calmed down in the second half, finishing with 27 points, and even that reflects his new normal.

There was a time when a nine-point, 4-of-8 halftime was by no means a period of reflection for Johnson.

“I just keep the pressure on the rim,” Johnson said. “That’s what I do.”

Although primarily relegated to painting, Johnson scored on an array of devious and astute moves. He attacked the inside of Jokic and the Nuggets with a collection of head-first controls, floats and pull-ups.

Popovich said he was impressed with Johnson’s decision making.

“When he catches and makes quick decisions – shoot it or pass it – it works best for him,” Popovich said. “When he’s just dribbling and trying to beat someone, it doesn’t work very well.”

Popovich satisfied despite defeat

Popovich has long and celebrated the idea that NBA coaches are never happy with anything.

After Friday’s game in Denver, however, Popovich let out a “happy” slip.

Specifically, he was happy that Spurs were able to hang on to the game despite 20 turnovers and just 6 of 24 3-pointers.

“We continued to compete,” Popovich said. “It’s a good sign for the team. I’m really happy with it.

For the second straight game to start the season, the Spurs forced at least 20 turnovers in Denver.

The Nuggets committed 21, which the Spurs turned into 20 points. Spurs gave almost as much, which was too many dry possessions.

Dejounte Murray led Spurs with four turnovers, while center rotation Jakob Poeltl, Drew Eubanks and Thad Young combined for eight.

“We just made some stupid decisions,” said Johnson, who has only returned the ball once. “It’s happening in basketball. We are a young team. We will make some corrections and improve.

Nielsen and Landale help each other adapt

Spurs rookie Jock Landale arrived on his first day on the job last summer to find a familiar face.

Assistant coach Matt Nielsen had been on the bench with the Australian national team which won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics

Landale, a 25-year-old center, has played a key role in the Australian squad.

“For us, having built this rapport throughout the Olympics and being able to bring it here has been heartwarming,” Landale said.

Nielsen’s presence helped ease the NBA transition for Landale, who played for Melbourne United in the Australian National Basketball League last season.

Landale believes his presence could also be heartwarming for Nielsen.

Although Nielsen has been on Spurs’ schedule in various capacities since 2014, this is his first season as Popovich’s bench assistant.

“He’s been around, but he’s in a new role,” Landale said. “Sometimes we just like to talk shit and brainstorm a few ideas. It’s huge in a situation like this.


Twitter: @JMcDonald_SAEN

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