The Golden State Warriors came into the playoffs with little expectations. They nearly lost their No. 6 seed to the Houston Rockets before finishing at 47-35 (and amazingly, Houston dropped back down to No. 8). They finished 3-3 in their last six games, had been in a .500 funk for the second half of the season, and really weren’t the dominant team they seem to be now.
Going into the playoffs, they were an underdog against the Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets won 57 games, and had an almost unbeatable homecourt advantage (38-3 at home during the regular season). Their matchup with the Warriors was supposed to be perfect because of the schemes that the Nuggets implement.
The Nuggets play the same way that the Warriors do in terms of offensive philosophy. They want to get a lot of three-point shots, a lot of layups and force their way to the free throw line, and what they do defensively is perfect for facing an elite shooting team like the Warriors. They normally switch everything on pick-n-rolls to force isolations and capitalize off of the opposition trying to attack those mismatches.
They lost Danillo Gallinari‘s shooting touch before the end of the regular season, but he was replaced by Wilson Chandler, who shot 41 percent from beyond the arch while taking 2.9 per game. He’s also a better low post defender, so the Nuggets should’ve been just as comfortable with playing Chandler at the power forward position as they were Gallinari. He’s better defensively and he also gives them what they need on offense in terms of scoring and shooting.
In Game 1 of the first-round series, the Nuggets switched a lot of screens, but the main focus was to run Stephen Curry off of the three-point line and frustrate him. That worked for the most part until the Warriors stormed back in the second half. The Warriors lost off of an Andre Miller outlier game; in reality, after watching the ensuing three games, they had a chance to sweep the third-best team in the Western Conference.
When David Lee went down, it looked extremely bleak for the Dubs. The All-Star didn’t have a great scoring night in that opening game loss, but he impacted the game with his rebounding and his passing ability. His versatility allowed two big men to be on the floor at one time, doing a great job as a facilitator.
Losing Lee for the Warriors seemed like a blow they couldn’t recover from, but it could’ve been a blessing in disguise. They would’ve relied on strategies that didn’t really work in the regular season. They were faced with an ultimatum of sorts: put your trust in a rookie in Harrison Barnes or sacrifice your spacing by playing Carl Landry and Andrew Bogut together in long stints. Mark Jackson chose to go with Barnes, and he’s played 33.9 minutes per game in this series, really, the key to the Warriors turning things around.
In Game 1, the Nuggets were leaving Barnes to help on David Lee once he flashed to the free throw line and mucked up the Warriors passing lanes. Yet since then, Barnes has torched the Nuggets and made them pay for gambling off of him. He’s shooting 50 percent from the field and 43 percent from beyond the arc in the series while taking four triples per game. He’s stretching the floor and allowing the Warriors’ guards to probe the paint.
Partly because of this, Stephen Curry and Jarrett Jack have combined for 47.3 points and 18.3 assists per game. Jack is shooting an absurd 62 percent from the field and is also averaging 5.3 rebounds per game, while Curry is shooting 50 percent from the field and a scorching 47.4 percent from deep.
No one on the Nuggets can keep up with Curry because of his versatility on and off of the ball. The Warriors are able to take him off of the ball and insert Jack to execute their half-court offense. With Klay Thompson and Curry both shooting over 40 percent from distance, its almost impossible to keep the Warriors below 100 points. The Nuggets haven’t been able to switch screens because of the multiple screens the Warriors run through. They run a lot of pindown screens and baseline screens to get Thompson and Curry free.
This Warriors team is very similar to the “We Believe” Warriors team that upset the Dallas Mavericks in the 2006-07 Playoffs. They had a combination of guard play (Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson) that got hot from beyond the arc and they played defense when they needed to on Dirk Nowitzki.
That series was all about offense and, like this series, each game was an up-and-down barn-burner. So far, there have been few defensive adjustments — the Nuggets are simply trying to outscore the Warriors. At the end of the day, that won’t happen.
This series has been very entertaining to say the least. It has everything an NBA fan could ever want: strategy, scoring, great players and a very compelling narrative. No matter how this one ends, it’s going to be a great finish.
Is this series over for Denver?
Follow Michael on Twitter at @Mikey_NBA.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.