That one stings.
Today's 97-95 loss is nothing to scoff at. With the league’s best home record at 38-3 in the regular season, the Nuggets have proven that they have one of the best home-court advantages in the league. But the Warriors were in this one. They took the Nuggets’ best punches and responded with some of their own. They weathered scoring runs and managed to remain in the game despite a shooting performance that was below what we’ve come to expect from this Golden State squad. So the Warriors certainly do have some things to feel good about, and at the very least have proven that they belong in this series. But anytime you have a chance to steal a playoff game on the road and fail to do so, that’s a huge opportunity missed and one that the Warriors are not necessarily guaranteed to receive again.
The game itself was a bit unexpected, although not totally a surprise. Rather than a high-scoring affair with both teams running up and down the court, the two squads were locked in a grind-it-out battle, with neither side able to pull away at any point throughout the contest. It was obvious the Nuggets had come into the game with the intention of limiting Stephen Curry’s space, bothering him into a sequence in which he missed his first nine shots of the game. On the other side, the Warriors did a great job, particularly in the first half, of keeping things close by limiting turnovers and getting to the foul line. At halftime, it appeared as if this series might never reach the tempo levels most expected of this matchup. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was a close and highly competitive game, but it was obvious that the defenses had the upper hand.
Then came the second half.
The Warriors repeated what has become somewhat of a concerning trend in which they lose the third quarter by a significant margin. The Nuggets outscored the Warriors 27-16 in the period, erasing what was a Warriors’ four-point lead at halftime and ended with a 13-2 run to close out the quarter. It’s exactly those types of runs that the Warriors need to clamp down on if they want to have a shot at sniffing the second round. It’s as if that with each successive bucket, Denver becomes more and more potent. It’s like quicksand. If you can’t slow down their momentum with some quality defense and a few points of your own, you sink deeper and deeper until the resulting pressure is just too much to overcome. To the Warriors credit, they responded to every Nuggets’ run throughout the game, but the energy expended to stop them could have been better utilized in other areas, particularly in a two-point game.
Obviously, no one expects Stephen Curry to exhibit the kind of shooting struggles he showed in the first half. Perhaps it was a natural reaction to him playing in his first career playoff game, but brilliant performances earlier this season in New York and Los Angeles have proved that he doesn’t shy away from the big stage.. Plain and simple, it wasn’t his half. But the great players in this league manage to shake off those rare occurrences, and rise to the occasion when the stakes are highest. Curry did just that in the second half, with no shot more emblematic of his rise to superstardom than his game-tying corner three-pointer with fourteen seconds left in the game. Andre Miller stole his thunder (and the game) with a deft layup with 1.2 seconds left, but nonetheless, it was encouraging to see Curry hit that shot when a miss would have meant the game was over.
The trouble for Curry and Mark Jackson is now finding a way for him to be successful, even with Denver focused on taking the ball out of his hands. The Nuggets have a roster filled with long, athletic defenders that can rotate on and off of Curry, which proved very effective in the first half at limiting his space and preventing him from getting into a shooting flow. There was a moment in the second quarter when, on their way off the floor after a timeout was called, Andre Iguodala refused to let Curry get off a single practice shot when it was clear Curry wanted to do so. If there was any wonder about how Denver would attempt to defend him, that instance might have answered it better than anything. The Nuggets showed that they were going to make the other Warriors win this game. To his credit, Curry was facilitating the offense effectively while his shot wasn’t falling, and that was a big reason why the Warriors had the lead at halftime. But there has to be a balance. There has got to be some middle ground, where Curry is intent on involving his teammates, without letting his own scoring opportunities go by the wayside. That will be the biggest and most important challenge for Jackson & Co. in a crucial Game 2 on Tuesday, where the Warriors will probably need to play better than they did today if they want to return home with the series tied.
All in all, the Warriors played a pretty good game. But in the playoffs, on the road in a hostile environment, pretty good is often not good enough. It’s now desperation time as, historically, lower seeds that have lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series on the road have gone on to lose the series about 94 percent of the time. Then again, the Warriors have made a habit of responding to tough losses throughout this season, and they’ll need to tap that resiliency once again on Tuesday.
Game 2 offers the Warriors a chance at redemption. If they make the proper adjustments, there’s no reason why they can’t be the ones with the last word this time around.