Coming into the series, it seemed highly unlikely that the Golden State Warriors could steal a game at the high-altitude Pepsi Center. David Lee's hip flexor injury in Game 1 stretched those odds even further.
But since their double-doubles maven went down, the Dubs have won two straight games behind their electric scoring and seized control of the series.
The Denver Nuggets are scrambling to counteract Golden State's jump shooting and speed. Considered by many to be a dark-horse contender for the Western Conference title, Denver has scuffled against the Warriors' array of weapons and come up short.
The Nuggets will continue adjusting, and they figure to tie up the series, but they'll need their "no-name" lineup to match Golden State's furious offense, as Ty Lawson can't win it by himself.
Time: Sunday, April 28, 9:30 p.m. ET
Where: Oracle Arena, Oakland, Calif.
Series Record: 2-1 Warriors
Game 4 Key Storyline: Gambling with Matchups
Lee's injury kicked off a chess match between Warriors coach Mark Jackson and Denver's George Karl.
Despite the logical substitution for Lee being 6'9" power forward Carl Landry, Jackson instead inserted sixth man Jarrett Jack as a starter for Game 2, shuffling his lineup to optimize the shoot-happy, small-ball approach.
And the Warriors promptly gifted Denver only its fourth home loss of the season in Game 2, shooting a staggering 65 percent from the field (including 14-of-25 from downtown) and hanging 131 points on the Nuggets.
For Game 3, Karl swapped ineffective center Kosta Koufos out of his starting lineup for Kenneth Faried. The Manimal had been slowed by an ankle injury, but he played 52 minutes over Games 2 and 3. Unfortunately for him, the Nuggets lost both.
The Warriors out-rebounded Denver in Game 3 (42 to 34) and prevailed despite committing 23 turnovers. Perhaps most significantly, Golden State's small lineup racked up seven blocks (to just one for Denver), including three from Festus Ezeli in only eight minutes.
Karl must realize that going small doesn't mean you have to go tiny. The Nuggets would benefit from fewer minutes for the ineffective Evan Fournier (15 per game), with a larger role going to Corey Brewer (25 MPG) and JaVale McGee (17.3 MPG).
Series Star so Far
Stephen Curry posted one of the finest shooting seasons in NBA history, and he's carried that momentum directly into the playoffs.
He's averaging 26 points, four three-pointers, 11 assists, five rebounds and more than two steals per game. Curry has 30 and 29 points in his last two games, and he's taken over the offense in Lee's absence.
It's up to Denver's defense to limit Curry to "only" 25, because he's capable of going for much more, He demonstrated that with his 54-point game at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 27 (when Lee sat out due to suspension).
Projected Starting Lineups
Nuggets: Ty Lawson, PG; Evan Fournier, SG; Andre Iguodala, SF; Wilson Chandler, PF; Kenneth Faried, C
Warriors: Stephen Curry, PG; Jarrett Jack, SG; Klay Thompson, SF; Harrison Barnes, PF; Andrew Bogut, C
Nuggets Injury Report (via CBSSports.com)
Danilo Gallinari (knee), out
Warriors Injury Report
David Lee (hip), out
Nuggets Will Win If...
Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller find their scoring touch.
Denver hung on to win Game 1 almost solely because of Miller's superhuman effort (28 points on 11-of-16 shooting and five assists). The 13-year veteran continued his strong play in Game 2, but he shot just 2-of-13 from the field on Friday night.
Iguodala shot 6-of-15 in the 110-108 Game 3 loss. The Olympian has increased his field-goal attempts with each game (four in Game 1, 11 in Game 2), and a potent effort from him would put Denver over the top.
These two teams were just about dead even in Friday's game. More efficient nights from Iggy and Miller would allow Denver to even the series. Through three games, the Nuggets have taken 92 free throws to just 58 for Golden State.
Steph Curry failed to attempt a single foul shot in Game 2, but he got to the line nine times in Game 3. He'll need to continue that trend and set the tone for his team. With their defense, the Warriors can't allow Denver to get too many easy points.
Warriors Will Win If...
They dominate on the glass and get to the foul line.
Golden State has won the rebounding battle in all three games thus far, despite losing David Lee and sporting an undersized lineup. Andrew Bogut has been the only true big man on the court for the majority of the series, yielding him 10.3 boards per game.
Harrison Barnes, a rookie out of North Carolina, has played very well since shifting to the 4. In Lee's stead, Barnes has totaled 43 points and 13 rebounds in the last two games. Staying strong on the glass with their small-ball rotation will keep them afloat over the athletic Nuggets.
And to ensure victory, Golden State should look to drive the lane and draw contact as Denver shrinks its lineup to match them.
I have to believe that George Karl has picked up a few tricks in his 25 years of coaching. Jackson's only in his second season as coach, and the elder statesman will figure out a way for his team to even the series at two games apiece.
The Warriors couldn't possibly keep up their torrid shooting from Game 2, but they still shot 52.5 percent on Friday. Denver must stay strong on its closeouts and reduce the 52 points in the paint it allowed to Golden State's three-guard lineup.
Ty Lawson will have to continue his stellar play, but with the Manimal's ankle improving every day, a small offensive boost from Miller and Iguodala will deliver a Game 4 victory for Denver.
Prediction: Nuggets 114, Warriors 108