There is no way on Earth the Golden State Warriors should have lost Thursday's game.
They had an unbelievable opportunity to clinch a playoff berth—their first back-to-back appearance in the NBA's Big Dance in 22 years—in front of their home crowd in a nationally televised game. Their opponent, the Denver Nuggets, had not only been eliminated from postseason contention long ago, they only dressed nine players on Thursday as they dealt with myriad injuries.
Denver was also playing on the second night of a back-to-back, while its opponents came in well rested. All the signs pointed to a Warriors romp.
Golden State looked to step on Denver's throat, jumping out to a 47-27 lead at the 4:46 mark of the second quarter. By all rights, the game was already over.
Except it wasn't. The Nuggets, a team which had every reason to go into the tank, decided instead to play the kind of fast, loose style of a team with nothing to lose. Spurred on by a career night from center Timofey Mozgov and a clutch last-second shot from power forward Kenneth Faried, Denver rallied for an improbable 100-99 win at Oracle Arena.
If it feels like the Warriors have blown several of these kinds of winnable games at home, it's because they have. Golden State is now 26-14 playing in the Bay Area—a fine home record, but a far cry from what should be expected of such a talented team backed by some of the most raucous fans in the league. The 2013-14 Warriors have already won one more game than last year's team, but also have one more home loss.
But it isn't only the quantity of their home losses that is disturbing, but the quality...or lack thereof.
In the span of a month, the Warriors have lost to the likes of these Nuggets, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New York Knicks at Oracle Arena. Those should have been gimmes. Had Golden State simply taken care of business in those three games, they would be one game behind the Houston Rockets for the fourth seed, and home-court advantage in the first round.
Alas, it was not to be.
From Russia With Boards
Timofey Mozgov was not expected the start many games this season. The fourth-year center from Russia came into 2013-14 behind incumbent JaVale McGee on the Nuggets' depth chart. He had shown flashes of promise in his first three years in America—first with the Knicks, then with the Nuggets—but was never really considered more than a decent reserve big.
But McGee missed nearly all of the season with a leg fracture, and J.J. Hickson was also lost for the year with a knee injury, forcing Mozgov to contribute more than the Nuggets had anticipated.
While he isn't exactly a candidate for the NBA Most Improved Player award, Mozgov has stepped up admirably, averaging 9.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks coming into Thursday.
There is no way, however, that the Warriors (or the Nuggets, for that matter) could have seen Mozgov's Thursday performance coming. The big man annihilated the Warriors to the tune of a career-high-tying 23 points and a startling 29 rebounds. Not only was that a career high for Mozgov, it was more rebounds than any Nugget had ever grabbed in a 48-minute game, per Nuggets radio personality Jason Kosmicki:
Mozgov sets Nuggets NBA Franchise record with 29 rebounds for a non OT Game. Mutombo had 31 in a double OT game— jason kosmicki (@RadioKoz) April 11, 2014
When it comes to rebounding, finding yourself in the same sentence as Dikembe Mutombo is always a good thing.
The Lee Problem
As if being dominated by Mozgov wasn't bad enough, the Warriors also found themselves overwhelmed on the glass by Faried, who grabbed 17 rebounds himself.
The Nuggets made life miserable for Golden State on the offensive boards, grabbing 25—four more than the Warriors had given up in any game this season. How bad was the offensive rebounding discrepancy? Check out these numbers:
- Mozgov: nine offensive boards
- Faried: eight offensive boards
- Entire Warriors team: six offensive boards
These numbers throw into question the idea that the Warriors might be better off without the services of David Lee, who is currently sitting out due to nerve inflammation in his hamstring.
Golden State went on quite a run with Lee injured in last year's playoffs. Small forward Harrison Barnes came up huge in Lee's postseason absence a year ago. The North Carolina product thrived as a small-ball 4—specifically in their second-round series against the Spurs, averaging 16.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game during a breakout 12-game performance.
But Barnes has not been the same player this season, and there is no guarantee Golden State's small-ball lineups will succeed against their likely first-round opponent in this year's playoffs, the Los Angeles Clippers.
The Warriors played the Clippers tough this season, splitting the tense four-game series, but Lee played in all four games. L.A. sports one of the league's best frontcourt duos in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, so the Warriors could be in trouble without their power forward.
Will Lee be back in time? Head coach Mark Jackson isn't so sure, per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News:
We certainly miss him, we certainly need him, and he’s a guy that’s doing everything possible to try to get back on the floor. He’s frustrated right now. And rightfully so.
We don’t know how long…
Time is growing short. Golden State has only four more games left to prepare for the playoffs. And while they are still a virtual lock to make the postseason, that is no longer enough for this franchise. They expect to compete for championships.
Well, performances like Thursday's game against Denver are not the stuff that championships are made of.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference.