Torrey Craig got his chance in the starting lineup for the Denver Nuggets in Game 4 and he did not disappoint.
The former two-way player injected an air of defensive intensity from the jump, something that has been sorely lacking through the first three games of the series.
3 TAKEAWAYS: Nuggets level series at 2-2 with impressive road win over Spurs
Craig was tasked with slowing down Derrick White after the Spurs guard torched them for 36 points in Game 3, before shifting to DeMar DeRozan as the game wore on.
White was held to just eight points on 3-of-8 shooting after going 15-of-21 the game prior, while DeRozan finished with 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting before getting ejected after throwing the ball towards the official following an offensive foul call.
Torrey Craig protects the @nuggets paint!#MileHighBasketball 111#GoSpursGo 94- NBA (@NBA) April 20, 2019
4:00 to go on @NBAonTNT pic.twitter.com/UbYPSsOUaZ
While he set the tone for the Nuggets on defence, Craig was doing his thing on the offensive end in the ultimate 3&D performance, knocking down 5-of-7 three-pointers on his way to 18 points on the night, adding eight rebounds, earning plenty of praise from head coach Mike Malone, who made the call to send Will Barton to the bench for Craig.
"Obviously, it was a tough decision, I could have gone with either one of those guys [Craig or Malik Beasley]," Malone said in his post-game press conference. "I wanted to put Torrey Craig on DeMar DeRozan I think Gary [Harris] has done a phenomenal job, but I think Torrey is the best matchup for him.
"I'd be lying if I said I knew Torrey Craig was going to go out and have 18 and hit five threes, but his defence, his rebounding, his shotmaking and Malik was still fantastic off the bench, so I didn't want to mess up the rhythm of that second unit."
...wait for it....- Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) April 20, 2019
SPLASH! 💦 pic.twitter.com/yzeKiBKQhq
Opting to keep Beasley (7 points) with the bench proved a wise decision as he combined with Monte Morris (11 points) and Barton (12 points) to generate plenty of offence against the Spurs reserves.
Barton entered the Game shooting 9-of-31 from the field and looked much more comfortable with the second unit, knocking down all three of his three-point attempts.
Craig's performance today will give Malone plenty to think about for the series moving forward, especially given the job he did harassing DeRozan through some key stretches of the game. A challenge Craig relished.
"I just don't like for him to be comfortable," Craig said of guarding DeRozan. "I try to do anything I can to get up under guys, just being physical with him all night."
"We started getting stops, started running, scoring rebounding and playing physical, we got back to our old ways and you can tell, the bench was in it, the coach was in it and I think we did a good job coming in here on the road against a tough team in a tough environment and coming out with a win.
🗣️ "I knew we were in a tough situation. We really needed this win and I just tried to come out and play with a lot of confidence, a lot of energy." #NBAPlayoffs #MileHighBasketball pic.twitter.com/SfCHfNFwCQ- Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) April 21, 2019
With the series now tied at 2-2, Denver's win today provides a huge confidence boost, earning their first win at the AT&T Center since March 4, 2012, having lost 14 consecutive games in San Antonio.
"We knew coming into today's game, I think it was what eight years ago, seven years ago since we won here, but we always knew we could win here," Craig added. "We played a lot of close games here and second quarter, third quarter we did a good job of getting the lead and keeping the lead."
For Craig, today's performance was the high-point in what has been a tough grind with the Nuggets, making the leap from two-way player, to the bench, to now starring in the starting lineup of playoff games, much to the delight of his head coach.
"I remember having a conversation with him last year and I think you guys all know, the Denver media knows how high I was on Torrey as a two-way player," Malone added
"I never look at when you were drafted, what round, what school, I don't care, If you can play I'm going to play you. if you can help us win I'm going to play you and I had that kind of confidence in Torrey.
"He moves well without the ball, he finishes, he rebounds, he defends and obviously he can make the three-point shot, so his confidence in shooting that ball is very high and obviously allowing him to shoot it, he's never looking over his shoulder 'is coach going to take me out if I take an open three?' If we take open shots, that's all I care about, so Torrey deserves so much credit for staying with it and improving his overall basketball game."