Heroes from Golden State Warriors' 1st-Round Upset of Denver Nuggets
After all, the Nuggets finished the regular season with 57 wins, 10 more than Golden State. They went 38-3 at home and hadn't lost in Denver since Jan. 18.
They also beat the Warriors three out of four times during the regular season, and that was back when Golden State was above them in the standings.
The Warriors, of course, won this series in six games. They did so even though Jarrett Jack committed 4.0 turnovers per game, doubling his regular-season total. They won despite Klay Thompson's uncharacteristically poor shooting from three-point range.
The Warriors won four out of five games against Denver after David Lee tore his hip flexor in Game 1.
Few people expected the Warriors to knock out the Nuggets, but no one expected them to do so without normal production from Thompson and Lee and with so much carelessness from Jack.
Luckily for Golden State, the following players rose to the occasion and carried the Warriors into the second round.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
After David Lee went down in the Game 1 loss, the Warriors' season seemed to have effectively ended.
Without its All-Star power forward, the team's most consistent scorer and best defensive rebounder, Golden State was likely to be dominated inside by the Nuggets. Compounding this was the fact that Kenneth Faried, Denver's ferocious power forward, was returning to the lineup after missing Game 1.
The man expected to fill Lee's role at the starting 4 spot was Carl Landry. Instead, coach Mark Jackson inserted Jarrett Jack into the lineup, sliding rookie Harrison Barnes into the power forward slot.
Barnes responded to his first career start at the 4 with his best game as a pro.
He shot 9-of-14 for 24 points in Game 2 and added six rebounds, two assists, a steal and zero turnovers in almost 34 minutes. His two-handed reverse dunk in the fourth quarter put the stamp on a game that saw the Warriors steal home-court advantage away from the Nuggets.
Throughout the series, Barnes averaged 14.8 points and 5.5 rebounds on 45.7 percent shooting. His regular-season averages were 9.2 points and 4.1 rebounds on 43.9 percent shooting.
The rookie forward showed an aggressiveness and confidence that his game sorely lacked all season. His ability to pull up from deep with no hesitation helped him increase his percentage from 35.9 during the season to 40.6 in the playoffs.
If Barnes played like he did during his first 81 games, he'd be sitting at home right now instead of in a hotel room in San Antonio.
Coming into the series, Denver coach George Karl clearly made stopping Stephen Curry his first, second and third priority defensively.
The Nuggets would trap Curry just as he crossed half court, and Curry would be forced to either give the ball up or turn it over.
This strategy was as brilliant as it was obvious. Curry had just won the Western Conference Player of the Month award for April, and Denver was much more content taking its chances with Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, David Lee and Andrew Bogut beating them.
After Lee went down, the team's second-leading scorer, the strategy became even easier to understand.
The only way to beat the Nuggets' traps would be to make them pay by getting the ball to the guy they were leaving open (Bogut) and that guy (Bogut) making them pay.
Bogut delivered. He would make himself a bailout option by coming up to the high post or top of the arc and receiving a pass from Curry. But while most centers would have been stuck here, Bogut would either swing the ball quickly to an open man or, if he was the open man, take it to the basket.
While a Stephen Curry three is not desirable for opposing defenses, an Andrew Bogut flush isn't much better.
Bogut's activity, offensive aggressiveness and mobility had been absent just about all season, but came on in a big way to propel the Warriors to wins in Games 4 and 6, the latter of which saw the Australian center put up season highs in points (14) and rebounds (21) while matching his season high with four blocks.
Even with Harrison Barnes having a breakout series and Andrew Bogut looking healthier than he had all season, the absence of David Lee still sent ripples through Golden State's lineup.
Barnes playing power forward made the Warriors a far worse rebounding team on both ends, while also creating a hole in minutes at small forward. Klay Thompson's poor-shooting series also left the Warriors' normally dynamite perimeter shooting dry at times.
Draymond Green filled both voids beautifully.
The rookie had to fight for every second of playing time all season, and by March and April was back to seeing single-digit minutes more often than not.
In Game 1 of the postseason, he played only four minutes, 29 seconds of the game. After Lee's injury, Mark Jackson had no choice but to give Green a longer leash.
He responded with a series so strong that calling his performance anything short of dominant would be shortchanging him. The numbers don't look great due to his 16.8 minutes a night, but a look at his per-36 averages tells the real story: 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.8 blocks on 59.3 percent shooting from the field and 50 percent shooting from three-point range.
That doesn't even take into account the charges he took, screens he set, hard fouls he committed on bad free-throw shooters and endless energy he provided.
If I were to tell you that the Warriors' reserve forward Draymond Green was going to outplay every Denver forward—Corey Brewer, Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, Anthony Randolph—would you believe me?
Hopefully not. But he did. In fact, no one on the Nuggets had an answer for Green, who put up the second-highest player efficiency rating (counting players who played at least 10 minutes per game) in the entire series, behind only Stephen Curry.
The importance of Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green in the first round cannot be overstated.
Had Barnes not raised his game, Golden State would have fallen short in Game 3 and possibly Game 2 as well. Had Bogut struggled to defend the rim and make Denver pay for double-teaming Stephen Curry, Games 4 and 6 could have gone the other way. Had Green failed to raise his game tremendously, those two games would have gone the other way.
The fact is, however, that the huge performances that these three players delivered were all made possible by Stephen Curry.
On top of that, had Curry played like anything less than an all-NBA superstar, Golden State would have lost in five, if not four.
The Nuggets did their best to contain Curry. They denied him shots by double-teaming him and running him off the three-point line. They attempted to neutralize him by attacking him on defense and being as physical with him as possible.
While this would work against a mere star, superstars are defined by their ability to transcend even the best game plan against them.
This is exactly what Curry did.
When Denver brought double-teams, he killed them with his passing skills, ending the series with 9.3 assists per game.
When the Nuggets would try to run him off the three-point line, he'd either use the quickest release in the world to get his shot off anyway, dismantle the defender with a crossover or simply drive past his man and attack the rim and finish with filthy floaters, bank shots and layups.
Defensively, Curry played his typical smart defense on the ball to compensate for his lack of size and lateral quickness. He was an absolute pest off the ball, playing passing lanes, creating steals with help defense (he averaged 2.3 steals in the series) and making the Nuggets pay in transition.
Curry was not only the best player on the court in this series, he was far and away the best player. All other nine players had to be aware of where Curry was at all times. If the Warriors weren't, they'd be wasting their advantage. If the Nuggets weren't, they'd get torched.
Even when they were aware, they still got burnt, and that's why Curry and his team came away victorious.