The plane ride back to Oakland just got a little bit longer for the Golden State Warriors.
Holding a 3-1 lead in their best-of-seven series with the Denver Nuggets, the Warriors had the chance to secure a second-round playoff appearance with a victory on Tuesday night.
Whether limited by the percentages playing against their torrid shooting numbers or suffocated by the thin Rocky Mountain air, coach Mark Jackson's team failed to capture the importance of this contest until it was too late.
The Nuggets sprinted out to a 36-22 lead after the first quarter, then pushed their advantage to 20 before intermission. Gone were the gaudy shooting numbers that had driven the Warriors' three wins in the series, as were the hustle plays that had allowed Golden State to outperform Denver at its own game (via Golden State's official Twitter feed):
Not a pretty half for the Dubs. GSW being out-shot by Denver (46.2% to 38.5%), out-rebounded (29-17) & out-assisted (17-12).— Golden St. Warriors (@warriors) May 1, 2013
Thanks to some halftime maneuvers from Jackson, the Warriors began to ramp up their intensity on the defensive end in the third quarter. Golden State held Denver to just 20 points in the period after surrendering 66 in the first half.
But the Warriors' offensive struggles remained. The Warriors shot just 9-of-23 in the third, as the Nuggets closed the quarter on a 12-4 run to hold their lead at 17 (86-69) entering the fourth.
A Ty Lawson jumper at the 9:03 mark gave Denver a 92-73 lead, but finally the Warriors' shots that hadn't been falling all game started dropping. Golden State scored on each of its next five possessions, bracketed by a Klay Thompson fadeaway jumper and a Thompson three off of a Stephen Curry feed.
A 19-point lead shrunk to nine in less three minutes, leaving even the fast-paced Twitter world struggling to keep up (via Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com):
The sign of a great game: when your tweet becomes stale by the time you finish typing.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) May 1, 2013
Ty Lawson split consecutive trips to the foul line to help stop the bleeding, but a familiar face this postseason once again rose to the occasion. Curry fed rookie big man Festus Ezeli for a layup, dropped in a runner on the next possession and then buried a triple on the ensuing trip.
Denver's lead now stood at just five points, thanks in large part to an All-Star reject who elicited praise even from a Pacific Division rival (via Metta World Peace's official Twitter feed):
Did I say Curry is top five in the playoffs?— Metta World Peace (@MettaWorldPeace) May 1, 2013
But five points was as close as the Warriors would get down the stretch. Both Curry and Thompson found clean perimeter looks on a crucial possession with less than two minutes left in regulation, but neither found the bottom of the net. Denver's Wilson Chandler did just that on the Nuggets' next trip, and the Nuggets escaped with a 107-100 win to keep their playoff hopes, and this entertaining series, alive.
Moral victories are nothing more than a tough pill to swallow at this time of the year. But Golden State's ability to make this a game despite trailing by as many 19 points in the final period should have instilled some confidence for Game 6 (via Matt Steinmetz of Comcast SportsNet):
Curry & Thompson both had good looks at 3s with just under 2 minutes left. Could have gotten GSW within 2. GSW right there. Good sign.— Matt Steinmetz (@MSteinmetzCSN) May 1, 2013
More than anything, though, Game 5 hammered home the fact that these Warriors will only go as far as Curry can take them. His supporting cast did its job (Harrison Barnes, Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson combined for 62 points), but this was far from the blossoming superstar the basketball world had grown accustomed to seeing in this postseason.
Curry finished the game with 15 points, shooting just 7-of-19 from the field and 1-of-7 from three. Prior to Tuesday night, he had converted 50.0 percent of his shots from the field and 47.4 percent of his three-point attempts.
Denver's defenders physically challenged Curry at every opportunity, and the Davidson product looked out of sorts for the first 36 minutes of action. With David Lee (torn right hip flexor) lost for the postseason, the Warriors need Curry to play the leading role he had so masterfully filled in his past three games.
He has deceptively effective handles and a rapid release on his shot. With his basketball brain and feathery soft touch, he's more than capable of entering an unguardable realm.
If that sounds like too much to ask, it's no different than what's required of LeBron James or Kevin Durant on a nightly basis.
The Warriors need, expect even, transcendent performances from their prized point guard. And he's needed all of a handful of career playoff games to show that he has the ability to consistently produce them.
But he has to stay in the moment, to push aside the frustrations accompanying a physically imposing defensive challenge that his coach Mark Jackson called "dirty plays" after the game (via Ben Golliver of SportsIllustrated.com). He looked flustered at times during Game 5, a combination of both Denver's defense and his own offensive struggles.
This stage isn't too great for him; these lights are far from being too bright.
But the Warriors' path to the next round grew a bit murkier after Tuesday night. These teams will meet again inside Oracle Arena for Game 6 on Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET on TNT).
It's up to Curry to see to whether that's where this series ends.
Curry and his teammates failed to capture the urgency of Game 5. Another effort like this one, and this will have to go down as nothing more than a wasted opportunity for the Warriors.