When David Lee went down with a hip injury in game one, the Warriors were facing six point deficit with about 11 minutes left in the game. In the league’s most hostile arena and without one of their key offensive cogs, the Warriors were staring at an uphill battle to take home what had appeared to be a very winnable game up until the moment that Lee went down riving in pain.
To my surprise, the Nuggets were never able to land a knockout punch on the Warriors, and Golden State was able to hang around. When Stephen Curry drilled a three with 14 seconds left to tie the game, I thought for sure the game was going to overtime. But then the Warriors had another horrible break go against them: Andre Miller weaved his way around Draymond Green, who graded out as one of the best one-on-one defenders in the league this year, and banked home the game-winning shot with no time remaining, capping off a surreal 28 point night (18 in the fourth) for someone that scored more than 20 points just three times this season.
Losing to the Nuggets under those circumstances has to be a killer, mostly because there was a real shot for the Warriors to win a game against a team that never loses at home, only a 37-year old point guard that has never been a great shooter was knocking down everything he looked at. Assuming Denver’s other players would step up in game two and factoring in the loss of Lee, stealing one of the first two games of the series, which is generally considered to be a must for a true underdog to have a shot, seemed extremely unlikely.
But the Warriors didn’t let that belief slip into their minds; Mark Jackson’s best attribute as a coach is his ability to galvanize his team, and he had his men believing that their season wasn’t close to the brink just yet. Equally important to Golden State’s collective belief in themselves is the adjustment that Jackson made to his starting line-up in order to replace Lee. In game one, Jackson called upon Carl Landry to replace Lee for the majority of the fourth quarter, but rather than sticking with him as the new starting power forward, Jackson got with the times and went small, inserting Jarrett Jack into the starting line-up, sliding Klay Thompson down to small forward and Harrison Barnes into the unfamiliar role of stretch four big.
Golden State’s starting line-up of Jack, Curry, Thompson, Barnes and Andrew Bogut played 20 minutes last night while no other Warrior line-up was on the floor for more than five minutes. That starting unit was ridiculously effective for the Warriors, scoring 122.1 points per 100 possessions while holding the Nuggets to just 83.9 points per 100 possessions (small sample size alert, but that’s a net rating of +38.2 points per 100 possessions). Collectively the group shot 62% from the field and 55% from three and they more than held their own on the board because of the presence of Bogut and the superb effort of Barnes.
Barnes was tremendous for the Warriors last night, providing additional spacing to their offense, competing defensively, making an impact on the boards, knocking down some open shots and even providing the Warriors with some one-on-one offense. The Warriors put Barnes in the Kobe or Carmelo areas on the floor on the wing and asked him to attack the defense at an angle. Whether he was matched up against a smaller player because a switched pick-and-roll or was simply facing off against a Denver big man because the Warriors were playing small, Barnes gave the Warriors a few very important buckets out of isolation sets.
Here’s an example of the Warriors giving the ball to Barnes on the deep wing and clearing out for him to work. He’s got Anthony Randolph on him here, so he uses his speed advantage on the big man to get by him. He uses a jab step, drawing Randolph a bit closer to him, and drives with his left hand towards the basket.
Barnes gets a great deal of separation from Randolph as he begins his drive, and with Carl Landry screening off Kenneth Faried from helping, Barnes has an open path to the rim. That said, Randolph is an incredible athlete himself, and he actually recovers pretty well on this drive and gets in good position to block Barnes’ shot attempt, but the rookie forward was having none of it, switching up his dunk in mid-air to uncork one of the nastiest reverse jams you’ll ever see.
This slam came in a big spot. Corey Brewer had just a hit a three to bring Denver back within 10 and the Nuggets looked to be putting something together. But every time they made progress last night, the Warriors had an answer.
It is important to note that Barnes’ emergence as a stellar small ball four and the team’s success without Lee doesn’t mean that Lee isn’t a valuable part of this team. Though he may be the worst defensive player in the league, he’s one of the most dynamic bigs in the NBA, and his ability to do just about everything from the elbows makes Golden State’s offense flow at an elite level. In this particular case, though, with the Nuggets starting traditional small forward Wilson Chandler at the four and possessing enough length and athleticism to deter Lee’s effectiveness, Barnes is a better option. The Nuggets ignored Barnes as a spot-up shooter in game one, but he may have earned a bit of their respect in this one, and if the Nuggets start paying any attention to him, that opens up more space for the Warriors’ other offensive weapons to operate.
And when you get guys like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson space, they are going to make you pay big time. I love watching the Warriors play because their playbook is full of some off-ball goodies that they use to free up Curry and Thompson for open jumpers. Take a look at this set that the Warriors used late in the third quarter last night.
Golden State is going to make Denver’s defense work with this simultaneous action at both elbows. On one side, they’ll cross screen for Curry, and on the other there is a pindown screen for Draymond Green.
But instead of using the pindown, Green simply shifts down to the block, followed by Landry, who will set a staggered screen for Curry to come off and catch the ball for a three-pointer in the corner.
The staggered screen works, as both Corey Brewer and Andre Iguodala are in the paint and not in a position to get to Curry. Anthony Randolph has to be stepping out here and putting a hand in the passing lane, but he doesn’t appear to be aware that the best shooter on the planet is about to be wide open from three. Randolph eventually reacts, but it’s too late to prevent the red hot Curry from getting a clean look at the rim.
Thompson did not seem to be the beneficiary of many open looks off set plays last night, which makes his 8-of-11 shooting performance (5-of-6 from three) even more impressive. Thompson was able to have such a good game without getting open off Golden State’s sets because he’s one of the most intuitive players in the league and he is always working to find the open spot on the floor. Whether he’s running to the line in transition, getting himself open off an offensive rebound or simply reading the help defense and sliding to the open spot, Thompson is always sneakily finding ways to get open.
Here the Warriors are running some of their standard simultaneous action with Curry on one side and Thompson on the other. The result of this play is going to be a Jack drive, but where the play is made is when Thompson cuts across the baseline to get to the left corner.
Jack times his drive perfectly (he may not have been doing this on purpose, but I’d like to think so). As Thompson runs across the paint his man, Brewer, sees the Jack drive and decides not to stay with Thompson but to instead stay in the paint to provide help on the drive. Jack sees all of the help defenders in the paint for the Nuggets and adjusts his shot mid-air, swinging the ball out to Thompson for a wide open three. This shot was huge, too, as the Nuggets had just gotten the lead down to single digits.
Here we have Thompson reading the help defense. Brewer is taught to have a foot in the paint to contest this Curry drive. If Thompson were to stand still, Brewer could do a pretty good job getting in Curry’s passing lane and recovering to Thompson if Curry decided to pass. But Thompson realizes this and will fade to the corner, something Curry knows because it’s exactly what he’d do.
That’s too easy for Thompson.
With the amount of offensive firepower that the Warriors have on the perimeter – not to mention a very solid playmaker in Jack that can also hit open shots and a big man in Bogut that can facilitate from the post or elbow and make an impact downlow – you can’t count out this Golden State team even if they’ve lost one of their better players. The Nuggets are a putrid outside shooting team (and we’ve seen the Warriors go zone more than a few times in the first two games), so the Warriors are going to have a chance in every game if Curry and Thompson simply have average days.
The injury to Lee may have put a damper on the Warriors getting any further than the second round, but against an equally banged up Nuggets team that needed a miracle night from Andre Miller to break even at home in this series, they have a shot.