The holidays have not been kind to the Denver Nuggets this year, but they have a chance to close out the year on a strong note.
The Nuggets (21-11) are riding a two-game losing streak, but are still in first place in the Western Conference, percentage points ahead of the Golden State Warriors. Denver gets a chance to finish 2018 with a pair of wins, starting with a rematch against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night in Denver.
The two teams met in San Antonio on Wednesday, and while the game was close for three-plus quarters the Spurs used a 15-0 run to pull away for a 111-103 victory. It was San Antonio's eighth win in the last 10 games to move above the .500 mark.
The win over Denver, which was first in the Western Conference entering Wednesday, is a confidence builder for the Spurs, guard DeMar DeRozan told the San Antonio Express-News.
"It just shows you we can go out there and compete with the best and why we should look at ourselves as one of the best teams in the league as well," he said. "Because when we go up against the best, we perform and come out like we did tonight. It's definitely a confidence builder for all of us to understand that we can do this."
DeRozan has logged nearly half a season with San Antonio (19-16) since coming over from Toronto in a trade that shipped Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors. DeRozan had 30 points in the win over the Nuggets, the Spurs' 12th straight home win against Denver.
San Antonio will try to repeat its performance at Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets are 13-3 this season.
"We just got to keep improving off this game," Spurs guard Derrick White told the San Antonio Express-News. "We made a lot of little mistakes throughout. But if we keep playing like that defensively, with good activity, and move the ball offensively, we are tough."
The Nuggets have lost four straight road games, and the strain of missing three starters might be taking a toll. Guard Will Barton has missed nine weeks after core muscle surgery, guard Gary Harris has been out eight games with a hip injury and forward Paul Millsap has missed seven with a broken toe.
"We've been undermanned for a while now," Denver coach Michael Malone said after Wednesday's game. "Hopefully at some point we can get some of our bodies back to be whole, because you can hold it for a while, but at some point, you get stretched a little bit."
Harris and Millsap could return soon, but neither is going to rush it. Denver is 4-3 while both have been sidelined.
Neither will play against the Spurs, but both practiced Thursday.
"I'm looking forward to it," Harris told reporters on Thursday. "Definitely doing more now. It's good to finally start getting back out there with the guys instead of just being isolated and doing my rehab."
Center Nikola Jokic has stepped up his game with the starters out. He is averaging 22.3 points, 10.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists since Dec. 8.
"He's definitely really stepped up as more of a leader, and I've definitely seen that while being out," Harris said Thursday. "He's taken control of this team, and everybody knows it's his team."