The common refrain about the first-round playoff series between the Denver Nuggets and the Golden State Warriors is that whichever offense can get hot and stay hotter will win both the game and the series.
While Andre Miller’s old-man game helped seal a 97-95 victory for Denver down the stretch in Game 1 on Saturday evening, the Nuggets may never have been in position to win the game at all without their defense.
In addition to forcing 17 turnovers, Denver held Golden State to just 41.3 percent shooting. In particular, they smothered plays directly out of timeouts. The Warriors shot 1-of-7, turned it over once and were forced into calling another timeout on plays coming out of a stoppage.
Denver’s ability to sniff out Golden State’s first option and force it into secondary action that was either not designed or late and sloppily executed helped the Nuggets swing the game in their favor.
Here, the Warriors inbound the ball to Stephen Curry near the top of the key and set up in horns. They have their bigs stationed at either elbow with the wings in opposite corners. Curry kicks off the horns set by entering the ball to Carl Landry in the high post and screening for Klay Thompson in the corner.
This is where Thompson can read the defense and cut above or below the screen, depending on how the Nuggets play it. Klay chooses a baseline cut, but Andre Iguodala shuts it down easily.
Curry cuts back toward the ball, but Ty Lawson jumps into the passing lane. Steph quickly scurries backdoor, but Kosta Koufos rotates into the space to cut off any opening.
With options one and two shut down, Thompson runs toward the ball and initiates a handoff screen-and-roll with Landry at the left elbow.
Iguodala and Wilson Chandler string it out toward the sideline, trapping Klay before he can turn the corner. Because Andrew Bogut has moved through the lane and his man, Koufos, is now underneath the basket, the entire free-throw line area is open for Landry.
Thompson delivers a pass over the top of the defense to Landry, but at this point, there are only two seconds on the shot clock, so he has no choice but to launch a mid-range jump shot.
It seems like Landry will be wide open, but since Andre Miller knows the big man has to shoot, Miller abandons Jarrett Jack on the wing and gets a hand right in Landry’s face, forcing a miss.
Here, the Nuggets again shut down the first option for the Warriors with relative ease. Golden State gets the ball to Curry at the top of the key by rubbing him off a brush screen near the elbow, just as they did in the example above.
Rather than transition into horns, the Warriors run “floppy” or “single-double,” where Thompson can choose between jetting off a single-screen on one side of the court (from Harrison Barnes) or a double-screen on the opposite side (from David Lee and Bogut).
Thompson chooses the double, but neither Lee nor Bogut actually screens for him, so Iguodala is able to stick him the whole way through and deny the pass from Curry to Thompson before it ever happens.
The play doesn’t seem to have any backup options built in, so Curry dribbles high around a screen from Lee about 30 feet from the basket.
Lee doesn’t get over quickly enough to set a good screen, so Lawson is able to stay with Curry and deny a driving lane. Curry resets and takes off on a dribble drive, but Chandler is there to impede his path and contest his shot, forcing another miss.
This is how it went for Golden State after timeout plays for most of the game. Denver knew what the Warriors wanted to do and how to stop it.
Of course, on some plays, they made it easy. Even on well-designed plays, though, the Warriors couldn’t find an opening because Denver sniffed out their intentions, jumped passing lanes and denied the ball. When they managed to get a decent look out of their after-timeout action, it was still well-contested.
On consecutive late-game possessions, the Warriors drew up the same play, and Denver snuffed it out with ease both times. First, Lawson stole the ball from Curry on the catch and turned it into a basket of his own.
On the next possession, the Warriors went right back to the same action.
They line up with Thompson taking the ball out of bounds, Jack and Curry on the left and right block, and Bogut and Draymond Green at the left and right elbow, respectively. The only difference in the alignment is that Curry moves from the middle of the lane to the block.
On both plays, Jack catches the ball above the top of the arc after coming off a brush screen from Bogut as Curry gets a pin-down screen from Green and pops out to the right wing.
Denver switches the screen on both plays, not wanting to risk Curry getting an open catch-and-shoot look. Lawson recovers in time for the steal on the first play, while Chandler’s switch is so good and so early on the second play that the pass never happens at all.
Iguodala then does what he does best, cutting off Jack’s driving lane, staying home on the pump fake, avoiding a foul and hounding Jack until he’s forced to call another timeout.
That set up Golden State’s only basket of the game out of a timeout—Curry’s desperation three. While the Nuggets wound up giving up a basket on that play, they did manage to shut down the Warriors’ primary option: the famed “elevator” play.
Bogut and Barnes failed to close the doors in time, and Lawson denied the pass to Curry in the corner. It was only after the play broke down and Jack threw a desperation pass after leaving his feet, and after Curry ditched Lawson with a beautiful pump fake, that Steph had enough space to get off the game-tying shot.