San Antonio point guard Derrick White was screaming, flexing and stomping around the court after almost every basket against Denver.
It was completely out of character for White, but the mild-mannered point guard has never been in this situation before.
White had a career-high 36 points and the Spurs beat the Nuggets 118-108 on Thursday night, withstanding a first-half lapse to take a 2-1 lead in the first-round series.
"I just had a chip on my shoulder," White said. "This is the way I’ve played since I was young. Just try to go out there, compete and have fun."
Nikola Jokic had 22 points, eight rebounds and seven assists for Denver.
Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio, where the Spurs are 3-0 against the Nuggets this season.
White attacked Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray from the opening tip after being on the receiving end of Murray’s career outing Tuesday night. Murray had only six points, a game after scoring 21 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter to help Denver overcome a 19-point deficit to even the series.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Derrick White, the last couple of days, has been reminded about Jamal Murray’s fourth-quarter performance," Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. "Derrick White came out like he hadn’t eaten in two days. He came out hungry, he came out (ticked) off and he sent a very loud and clear message. I’m anxious to see our guys, how do we respond to that."
White set his career high after being fouled by Paul Millsap on a driving layup that bounced off the side of the rim, hit the backboard and fell in to give the Spurs a 99-89 lead with 8:52 remaining. White added five rebounds, five assists and three steals while shooting 12 for 17. The point guard matched his overall career high with 26 points in the first half.
DeMar DeRozan took over after that, scoring 21 of his 25 points in the second half. LaMarcus Aldridge added 18 points and 11 rebounds, and Rudy Gay had 11 points and 10 rebounds.
The Spurs finished with 62 points in the paint and had a 45-37 rebound advantage.
"They are doing a good job of attacking the paint," Jokic said. "They were living in our paint. I think it’s not just smalls, it’s our bigs, too. I think we all need to be more disciplined and more focused."
White had 10 points in the opening quarter while primarily being defended by Murray.
"He was obviously spectacular," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "I don’t know what else to say. At both ends of the floor."
Denver’s second unit dominated, turning a 31-22 deficit after the first quarter into a 38-31 advantage early in the second quarter. The Nuggets opened the second quarter shooting 7 for 8, including a pair of 3-pointers by Malik Beasley. San Antonio’s first points came on Jakob Poeltl’s two free throws with 8:41 left.
Beasley finished with 20 points, and Gary Harris added 12 points.
Harris stole the ball from Gay at midcourt and then calmly drained a 3-pointer before the Spurs’ defence could set for a 50-40 lead. San Antonio then went on a 21-8 run to close the half and recapture a lead it would not relinquish.
"We got our (butts) kicked because we couldn’t guard anybody," Malone said.
Nuggets: Denver is the eighth youngest team in playoff history. . Jokic is averaging 11.7 rebounds and 9.7 assists the series. … Isaiah Thomas was eligible to play but did not. … Millsap picked up his third foul with 2:12 remaining in the first half after bumping Aldridge near the 3-pointer. Millsap threw his hands up in frustration as he exited. He finished with five fouls.
Spurs: The Spurs are 22-7 against the Nuggets in the post-season, including 13-3 at home. … White’s previous career highs were 26 points in the regular season against Brooklyn on Jan. 31 and 17 against Denver in Game 2. … Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are the only players to score more points in any half for the Spurs in the post-season than White’s 26 points in the first half.
Popovich was bemused when asked what the Spurs’ mindset is after earning a split on the road.
"What’s their mindset," Popovich asked. "I didn’t give any psychological tests today or anything. It’s their job, they are going to come play, so will the Nuggets. They are going to try to win. Nuggets are going to try to win. It’s a competitive sport, that’s the mindset. It’s not too difficult to imagine."
White made his first post-season start in Game 1 at Denver, but he joked that he has plenty of playoff experience.
"Everybody said I didn’t have playoff experience, but I did this in the G League," White said. "Just kidding. But it was big for my development."
Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.