Figuring Out What Went Wrong for the Denver Nuggets During the Postseason
It was the same old story for the Denver Nuggets. They post a winning record and earn a berth to the playoffs, but take an early exit and begin their offseason plans shortly after.
There was good reason to believe the 2013 NBA playoffs would be different. The Nuggets were first in points, tied for second in rebounds and third in assists during the regular season. They had one of the deepest teams in the league, complemented by being one of the best at attacking the rim and getting to the free-throw line. They also had the league's best home record and the No. 3 seed.
Yet, Mark Jackson's Golden State Warriors stole home court in Game 2 and gave George Karl's club a 4-2 defeat in the first round.
What went wrong for Denver this time?
Nuggets' Perimeter Defense
First and foremost, you have to tip your hat to Stephen Curry. In just his first playoff series, the sharpshooter averaged 24.3 points on 46.8 percent shooting, including 44.2 percent from behind the arc. He also pitched in with an impressive 9.3 assists and was deadly off the initial high-ball screen. Outside of LeBron James, Curry's been the most consistently dominant player in the playoffs thus far.
Having said that, Denver's perimeter defense was atrocious. It didn't matter if it was in the pick-and-roll, isolation or transition, the Nuggets gave Curry way too big of a cushion to pull the trigger. Even worse, he still got to the middle of the floor at ease, forced Denver's defense to collapse and got the other shooters involved.
It wasn't just Curry though, Jarrett Jack had the flexibility as well. He got in the paint both in the half court and full court, his mid-range jumper was falling and he always seemed to be the guy to end a Nuggets run.
Jack was also tremendous in other areas. Not only did he dish out seven assists per game, the 6'3" point guard also grabbed 5.2 boards.
Mark Jackson made the excellent decision to go small in his starting lineup when David Lee went down in Game 1. Even though Jack had only started four games during the regular season, Jackson went after the Nuggets weakness with one of his strengths.
Denver tried multiple combinations defensively, but there was no execution. The Warriors guards shot over Ty Lawson. They got around Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller. The extra pass was made on the double-team. They forced Denver to make a bad switch on the high-ball screen and made Kosta Koufos or JaVale McGee defend on the perimeter.
Golden State Controlled the Inside Despite Loss of David Lee
Even though the Nuggets won points in the paint by 36 for the series, the Warriors' big guys were superior. Since this was a series where guards on both teams got to the lane off the dribble and scored at the rim in the fast break, that statistic is somewhat misleading for the post players.
The Warriors were the better team on the glass, going plus-27 over the six games. While that is influenced to a degree with Golden State earning the 49.4 to 43.8 advantage in field-goal percentage, Denver has no excuse for that when the fourth-best rebounder from the regular season is missing.
Without Lee for much of the series, someone had to step up to complement the Golden State guards. It was Andrew Bogut.
The Aussie center spent much of the regular season battling injuries and didn't play in any of the four regular-season meetings against Denver, but he got healthy at the right time. After shooting just 45.1 percent from the floor in the regular season, Bogut crushed the Nuggets by executing 63.2 percent of his attempts with all of his makes coming from inside the paint.
Furthermore, Andrew led the series with 62 rebounds, 24 offensive boards and a remarkable 14 blocked shots.
This chart shows the difference from Bogut against Denver versus his regular-season averages.
Where were the Nuggets' big men?
Kosta Koufos, who started all 81 games he played in during the regular season, started coming off the bench after Golden State's dominant victory in Game 2. He was a minus-43 for the series and averaged a weak 3.3 points and 3.5 rebounds.
As for JaVale McGee, the numbers were there for the most part, especially when he landed the starting spot in Game 5 and Game 6. However, outside those two games, he didn't make an impact off the bench like he did in the regular season and even found a way to make another appearance in Shaqtin' A Fool with two different highlights.
Granted, he only played 14 minutes each time from Game 2 through Game 4, but the man who led the Nuggets in PER in the regular season was not nearly as efficient in the postseason.
The story was different for Kenneth Faried. The Manimal missed Game 1 because he was still recovering from his ankle injury (per Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post) and played limited minutes off the bench in Game 2. The longer the series went on, Faried brought more production in scoring and on the glass, but it wasn't enough.
Denver could have used a 100-percent Faried and the seven-footers to play to their capabilities.
Denver Couldn't Limit the Damage in the Third Quarter
The Warriors didn't just outperform the Nuggets in the third quarter, they demolished them. It didn't matter if Golden State forced a turnover and Harrison Barnes got a dunk on the other end or Curry launched a three-pointer from the Golden Gate Bridge. Denver had no answer.
This is how the Nuggets performed in plus-minus points by quarter in the series.
(The fourth quarter was even.)
When the Warriors caught fire, the Nuggets' opportunities were limited in transition and Denver got stagnant in the half-court offense. Unless Andre Iguodala was getting to the free-throw line, Ty Lawson was essentially the only one to score against Golden State's momentum.
Ty did most of his damage off the high-ball screen by either getting to the rim or making the mid-range jumper. He also dished out eight assists per game and was by far the Nuggets' MVP of the playoffs.
He didn't get enough support from Wilson Chandler (31 percent) or Corey Brewer (25 percent) from behind the arc. Evan Fournier didn't provide much of anything in the first four games and eventually lost his spot in the rotation. Andre Miller had a stellar Game 1 and did a solid job posting up Jack inside, but really struggled at Oracle Arena (8-of-34 from the field).
Considering all those factors, and that Danilo Gallinari would have helped in both scoring and rebounding, the Nuggets didn't get enough easy baskets. The dribble-drive motion offense was for the most part ineffective.
The first quarter in Game 5 was what Denver fans were hoping to see a majority of the time, when the Nuggets scored 36 points on 11 assists (six different players had at least one assist).
Instead, it was the Warriors doing that kind of work in the third quarter. That success allowed them to pull away for wins in Game 2, Game 4 and Game 6, and come back for the victory in Game 3.
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