Nuggets ready for Game 7 vs. Spurs, chessmaster Popovich

Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone has likened San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich to Bobby Fischer. Popovich claims he's never heard of the one-time world chess champion, but he could be feigning ignorance.

Popovich may not know who Fischer is, but he does know how to coach in a Game 7, and he will be on the sidelines for his 11th such matchup in his career when his Spurs face the Nuggets on Saturday night in Denver.

The first-round series between the Western Conference opponents comes down to a win-or-go-home showdown. The victor takes on the Portland Trail Blazers in the conference semifinals, while the loser heads for an early summer.

While Popovich will coach in a seventh game for the 11th time, most of the Nuggets' players are playing in just their seventh playoff game. Despite that inexperience, they have a chance to move on with a win at home.

"It's like we're growing up on all fronts," Malone, who will coach his first Game 7, said Thursday. "Young guys going through this for the first time, so their approach, their discipline, their understanding of what's at stake -- I think I've seen growth amongst all areas."

The series comes down to a seventh game after moves and counters by both coaches. The Spurs controlled the first three games, and if not for a furious rally sparked by Denver guard Jamal Murray in Game 2, the Nuggets could have been down 3-0 in the series.

Things turned in Game 4, when Malone moved Torrey Craig into the starting lineup and brought Will Barton off the bench. The move gave the Nuggets a stronger perimeter defense, and they won the next two games by double digits to go up 3-2.

Thursday night, the Spurs played like a team desperate to stay alive. They turned a close game into a rout with a 24-6 run from late in the third quarter into the middle of the fourth.

Veterans LaMarcus Aldridge (26 points, 10 rebounds) and DeMar DeRozan (25 points, seven rebounds, seven assists) led the way. DeRozan said the team feeds off Popovich's demeanor in big games.

"He always has a calm to him," DeRozan said of his coach after Thursday's win. "It wears off on us. ... We understood what we had to come in here and do tonight. Wasn't much needed to be said."

Denver will rely on its star as it has all series. Nikola Jokic has had an impressive postseason debut and nearly carried the Nuggets over the finish line Thursday night. He finished with 43 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. He scored 27 points in the second half while dueling with DeRozan, who had 18 points after halftime.

Jokic is averaging 23.5 points, 11.7 rebounds and nine assists in the series. But he isn't focused on his stats, just on Game 7.

"It's probably going to be tougher than (Game 6)," Jokic said Thursday. "We are playing at home. That may be a little good thing for us. We need to go there and give our best. Just go out there and work and punch people, play physical, setting screen, whatever we need to do just to get a win."

The only question for Denver is how effective Murray will be after he was inadvertently kneed in the thigh by Jakob Poeltl on a screen in the first half of Game 6. Murray scored 11 points on 5-of-10 shooting in the first half and was 2 of 8 from the field in the second half with just five points.

He played nearly 19 minutes in the second half and is expected to play Saturday.

--Field Level Media