Like practically all Warriors fans, my heart sank upon confirmation that All-Star forward David Lee's postseason was over due to a freak injury suffered in Game One of their first-round series against Denver.
Reduced as they may be, Golden State's chances of advancing past the first round—as seven of Denver's previous eight playoff opponents have done—did not sink, however. I'm well aware that the Dubs went 1-2 in the three regular season games Lee missed, with GS barely squeaking past a .333 Hornets team in the lone win.
Though the Warriors' road is now considerably bumpier without the big fella, this isn't a case of the 1998-99 Knicks taking on Tim Duncan and David Robinson in the NBA Finals. (There are still vivid, yet painful, images of Larry Johnson trying desperately to channel "Grandmama" while posting up the Spurs' bigs in my mind, but I'm not here to talk about the past.) No one would have blamed Jeff Van Gundy for forfeiting that series once Patrick Ewing's leg gave out.
Golden State can still beat the Nuggets. A friend of mine who also bleeds blue and gold needed to be talked down from a ledge (figuratively) when the bad news came. I'll summarize for you what I told him prior to Game Two's tip-off on Tuesday:
In order to upset, the Warriors must get inspired and there has to be top-level play from the three-guard trifecta of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack. Curry's going to have to treat both arenas like they're Madison Square Garden. Thompson must be judicious with his shot selection and bother the Nuggets' wings. Jack's special brand of intensity and toughness must not take even a minute off (it never does, for the record).
The primary remaining Warrior bigs (Carl Landry, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli) must be active, low on fouls and high on rebounding. Landry must not make his Game One mistake by falling in love with his jumper; it's streaky and Landry is always the last to realize when it isn't there. Bogut isn't a scorer's scorer, but he does have ability and should be able to chip in 10-15 nightly. He's decent enough for a handful of feeds in the post—like Andris "The Relunker" Biedrins used to be.
(For those unfamiliar with my past work, that nickname stems from a notable 2011 play where Biedrins' offensive confidence was so shot, he was reluctant to convert a wide-open dunk. He'd gone from a contributing starting center on the "We Believe" Warriors to a reluctant dunker. Or, a "relunker".)
As for Ezeli, at this point in the rookie's career, his offensive contributions generally are setting screens...and returning downcourt. He must "make himself available" for feeds when the guards' drives are impeded—and hold on to the ball should it come his way.
Rookie Harrison "Don't call me Matt; I'm not 50-percent ink" Barnes has a tendency to drift Derrick Mckey-style during games; that WILL NOT FLY in the playoffs if the Dubs hope to advance. He can score, and he can be active. It won't be enough for him to drop seven impressive points in the first quarter and finish the game with 10. He's got to give them 40 minutes of gold.
Draymond Green, yet another rook, must not shoot from past 14 feet unless absolutely necessary. And by absolutely necessary I mean the shot clock must be down to two. He was 21 percent from far range this year—yet Mark Jackson never gave him the red light. Lastly, Biedrins and Richard Jefferson must only see the floor in garbage time or quarter-closing situations, composite $20 million salaries or not.
(It wasn't easy to say that about RJ, whom I'm a fan of for off-the-court reasons, but he simply didn't give Golden State very much on the court during the regular season; Jackson called his number less and less as the months wore on.)
So how did Game Two shake out?
The Warriors received inspired, top-level play from their three guards. Curry started very slowly but Thompson picked up his slack big-time with nine first-quarter points (offsetting the 12 points Andre Iguodala torched him for). Then Curry caught fire, dropping 25 of his 30 in the second and third quarters—many in spectacular fashion over Nugget big men. Jack chipped in a hard-nosed 26 once he abandoned the ineffective Reggie Miller pump-fake-lean-in.
The primary remaining Warrior bigs were active and high on rebounding. Bogut committed five weird fouls, but notched six points (and was robbed of four others by off-the-ball whistles). He also leveled Iguodala, who is not a small person, with a third quarter screen that left him so dazed, George Karl needed a time-out! Ezeli got three dunks when Denver collapsed on the Warrior guards and even made a free throw! Landry backed off his jump shot. Good job, bigs.
Harrison Barnes didn't drift, Draymond Green didn't shoot and Jefferson/Biedrins mostly sat. Engaged from start to finish, Barnes' 24 points were 14 over his season average; Golden State doesn't win without his clutch rebounding, solid shooting and his deflating reverse dunk on 7-foot Tony Randolph out of a halfcourt set. Green put up but two shots (both three's, one made). RJ played six minutes, his lone shot being a made corner three. Biedrins never removed his warmups.
The result: A 131-117 victory going away.
If Golden State can do this to a team on a 24-game home winning streak while their second-best player watches in street clothes, I'd say they have a fair chance to do some damage in Oakland provided Curry's latest ankle tweak proves to be nothing. (It'll be something to watch; Curry told reporters he would have had to sit out Game Three were it played on Thursday 4/26 rather than Friday 4/27.)