No one really cares about the Golden State Warriors. They're the third-most popular team in their own state, and aside from a handful of exciting shooters, what do they have? Well, in case you haven't been paying attention, they've accrued a 3-1 series lead.
The first round of the NBA playoffs is always hectic, and sometimes the really compelling storylines get overshadowed by the exploits of big-market teams. While the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and L.A. Lakers hog all the hoopla (or derision, as the case may be), Mark Jackson's Dubs are busy proving all their doubters wrong.
The Warriors stand on the precipice of one of the most shocking postseason upsets in recent memory. The Denver Nuggets entered the playoffs with only three home losses all year, and some considered them to be a dark-horse candidate for the Western Conference title.
When David Lee went down with a hip flexor injury in Game 1, the Warriors figured to roll over and go quietly. Instead, they've won three straight games behind a small-ball lineup, and Denver has been completely unable to find a solution.
As the series swings back to Colorado for Game 5, the Nuggets must win three in a row to stave off elimination.
Time: Tuesday, April 30, 8:00 p.m. ET
Where: Pepsi Center, Denver, CO
Series Record: 3-1 Warriors
Game 5 Key Storyline: Can Denver Stop the Freefall?
After taking Game 1 at home as everybody expected—though even that was a two-point margin of victory which came on the back of Andre Miller's best game ever—the Nuggets have had no answer whatsoever for Golden State's hot shooting.
Though Denver finally bested the Warriors on the glass in Game 4 (37 to 29), Golden State made up for that in almost every other vital area.
The Warriors shot better than 50 percent yet again and hit 11 of their 26 three-pointers, but it's the turnover differential that may have decided the entire contest.
The Nuggets coughed it up 23 times resulting in 33 points for Golden State, who committed 16 turnovers for 20 points. So the Dubs enjoyed a 13-point advantage in points off turnovers in their crucial 14-point Game 4 win.
Coach George Karl might want to have a chat with Ty Lawson and Andre Iguodala, who totaled a dozen turnovers between them.
And if you think that Denver just needs to outmuscle the undersized Warriors by drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line, you're wrong. On Sunday night, the Nuggets shot 15 more free throws than their opponent (38 to 23) and still lost by 14.
Karl, a 25-year veteran, will be scribbling furiously on his clipboard trying to solve the crisis. To this point, he's adjusted his lineup to go small and match the Warriors, but it's not working.
His smalls have not come up big, and his big man is too small. Putting Kenneth Faried at center has him giving up four inches to Andrew Bogut, while Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee have become bench fodder, seeing just over 12 minutes a game.
Meanwhile, guards Lawson and Evan Fournier would be better off buying tickets to watch the Warriors backcourt light it up. Of the players on the playoff roster, only Julyan Stone and Timofey Mozgov finished the season with lower simple ratings than Fournier (per 82games.com).
This has become a battle of Xs and Os, and so far, second-year coach Mark Jackson is winning hands down.
Series Star So Far
Well, the easy answer here is Stephen Curry. The point guard weighs 185 pounds soaking wet, and he's been a one-man wrecking crew, averaging 27.3 points, 4.5 three-pointers, 10 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.8 steals per game.
But he doesn't get the series star this time. That distinction goes to Jarrett Jack.
When Lee felt his hip pop in Game 1, the logical solution would have been to insert PF Carl Landry in his place and carry on as before. Instead, Mark Jackson moved rookie Harrison Barnes from the 3 to the 4 and inserted sixth man Jarrett Jack into the starting lineup.
Since then, the Warriors have won every game and Jack has excelled. Not only is he posting 20 points, 8.3 assists and 5.3 boards per game, but he's shooting an unreal 62 percent from the field over the course of 50 field-goal attempts.
Double J plays a very similar style to Curry, and with both of them in the starting five, Denver's backcourt has been unable to come up with an answer defensively.
Projected Starting Lineups
Golden State: Ty Lawson, PG; Evan Fournier, SG; Andre Iguodala, SF; Wilson Chandler, PF; Kenneth Faried, C
Denver: Stephen Curry, PG; Jarrett Jack, SG; Klay Thompson, SF; Harrison Barnes, PF; Andrew Bogut, C
Warriors Injury Report (per CBSSports.com)
David Lee (hip), out for season
Nuggets Injury Report
Danilo Gallinari (knee), out for season
Warriors Will Win If...
They continue to sizzle on offense.
Inserting Jarrett Jack into the starting lineup has been like an injection of steroids directly into Golden State's offense. Jack, who finished third in voting for Sixth Man of the Year, gives the Warriors something similar to the "NASCAR" package of pass-rushers sometimes deployed by the New York Giants.
They have guards at the guard positions and guards at forward too; they're all fast and can hurt you badly if you don't account for them.
Starting Curry, Jack and Thompson has vexed the Nuggets defense, and nothing seems to be working. On Sunday night, Golden State totaled 27 team assists to just 14 for Denver, suggesting that Stephen Curry and Co. are not just hitting their shots, but they're creating good looks through superb ball movement.
Denver must invade the passing lanes and get better with their closeouts to force the Warriors inside. Though Golden State has a lot of fight in them, the Nuggets need to get more physical and knock the undersized Dubs to the floor when they get their chances. As of now, the Warriors offense is running rings around the No. 3 seed.
Nuggets Will Win If...
They manage to play some sort of defense on the Warriors.
I had previously thought that regaining an edge on the boards would deliver a much-needed victory for Denver, but their 37-29 rebounding advantage (including 12-7 on the offensive glass) didn't help them in Game 4.
So it all rests on the defense. In Denver's 97-95 Game 1 win, Golden State shot 41.3 percent from the field. Here are their shooting percentages for the following three games, all Nuggets losses: 64.6, 52.5 and 55.7 percent.
You're not going to win in the playoffs playing defense like that. On Sunday night, Curry, Jack and Thompson each finished with floor ratings of plus-20 or better, though none of them are particularly gifted defenders. Meanwhile, for Denver, Lawson and Iguodala each finished with ratings of minus-20 or worse, setting the team-low.
It's the last-chance saloon for the Nuggets, and if they can't come up with a home victory against a team that lost its second-best player just over a week ago, they don't deserve to be in the playoffs.
The Nuggets will take Game 5 and make a series of it, but the Warriors look like they have too much to handle for Denver to win three straight games.
Denver must limit Golden State's looks on the perimeter, especially behind the arc, and force them inside for two-pointers. They'll need to close out on every single shot by Curry and Jack, but they also have to key in on the Warriors' talented reserves.
Bench players like Carl Landry and Draymond Green have excelled so far. Green turned in a fantastic performance in Game 4, scoring 13 points off the bench along with six boards, two assists, four steals and a block in 25 minutes.
Golden State is young and fast, and they present a nightmare matchup for Denver. While the Nuggets will narrow their series deficit to 3-2 with a crucial win at home, they'll face a torturous test in Game 6 back in Oakland.
While Denver would host a potential Game 7, which is when the tremendous home-court advantage in basketball comes to the fore, they'll have to solve the puzzling Warriors over two straight games to get there.
Prediction: Nuggets 111, Warriors 103