Got any fingernails left?
The Warriors pulled out a thriller tonight, defeating the Nuggets 110-108 on the first game back on their home floor. The win gives the Dubs a 2-1 series lead (their first of the series), but perhaps even more important was the way in which they accomplished it.
The last two minutes seemed to last forever, and the Warriors didn’t exactly do themselves any favors with the way they took care of the ball (or I should say didn’t) down the stretch. With several chances to put the game away, they let the Nuggets hang around after some shoddy ball-handling and clock management. But none of that matters now. The Warriors have their first playoff series lead in six years, and they couldn’t be happier about it.
You could tell by the way Denver opened the game that they were intent on taking control early. On offense, they attacked the basket at almost every opportunity, and caused the Warriors to rack up a fair amount of fouls in the process. On defense, they featured an effective new strategy, trapping the Warriors’ ballhandlers as soon as they crossed midcourt, and Golden State was slow to adjust. At halftime, the Dubs had accumulated 14 turnovers, which the Nuggets turned into 20 of their 66 first half points.
But something changed at the half. Who knows if it was something Mark Jackson said, or if the Nuggets just took their foot off the gas pedal, but after entering the third quarter with a 12 point lead, Denver found themselves on the wrong side of a three point deficit when the period came to a close. Outscoring the Nuggets 33-18 in the quarter, it was exactly the type of burst the Warriors were looking for after stumbling into the break.
Stephen Curry…what more can you say about the man. He turned in yet another superstar performance, registering his second consecutive double-double with 29 points and 11 assists. And that’s exactly what he is. A superstar. George Karl has to be racking his brain, wondering what else he can do to limit the silky-smooth point guard’s impact after dominating the game once again. Yes, Ty Lawson was tremendous himself and kept the Nuggets in the game throughout the contest with his game-high 35 points, but whereas the Warriors were able to clamp down on Lawson with the game on the line and force him into a turnover in the final seconds, Curry did just enough to push the Warriors over the top. In fact, the best defense played on Curry all night might have been by himself. He was in foul trouble early and often, registering his fourth personal with 9:34 remaining in the third quarter, which limited his ability to remain aggressive. But Mark Jackson, understanding that his team couldn’t afford to have its most crucial player off the court for an extended period of time, stuck with Curry and kept him in the game. Likewise, Curry was well aware of the circumstances, and rewarded his coach’s trust with a 15-point second half without picking up another foul throughout the remainder of the game. Yes, this is the type of performance we’ve come to expect out of Curry, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive. As if the M-V-P chants resonating from the raucous Oracle crowd throughout the night weren’t any indication, Stephen Curry has truly arrived. And for the Warriors, it’s come not a moment too soon.
He didn’t and couldn’t do it by himself though. Someone had to score on each of his 11 assists, and the majority of the time, the points came from the trifecta of Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack and Harrison Barnes. Landry played great, and almost single-handedly kept the Warriors in the game in the first half in which he scored 15 of his 19 points. Jarrett Jack, although he made a few crucial errors with the chance to put the game away in the final minutes, put the Warriors in that position to begin with as his 23 points and seven assists took the pressure off Curry and opened up space for the Warriors’ shooters with his dribble penetration. Finally, Barnes ignited the Warriors’ second half surge, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the final two frames. For a 20-year old rookie who’s had trouble with inconsistency this season, it was certainly an encouraging sign to see him put together back-to-back games in which, at times, it’s appeared as if Denver has no answer for him.
As great as the individual performances were, the fact remains that the Warriors never stood much of a chance against a deep Nuggets team without getting contributions all the way down the bench. And that, they did. Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli did a phenomenal job defending the paint, but Draymond Green may have had the most emblematic play of the game in the closing seconds of third quarter, in which he switched over to guard Andre Miller (yes, the same Andre Miller that victimized him at the end of Game 1) and never let him get a shot off. As Green sat on the floor after the buzzer sounded, screaming to the rafters while clutching the ball with both hands, you could tell the tables had turned. And I’m not just talking about the game. More importantly, I’m referring to the series.
For the first time since 2007, the Warriors have a lead in a playoff series. That’s no small feat for a franchise and fan base that has been on the other end of this kind of frantic finish for what has seemed like forever. And certainly, they all deserve the right to celebrate this thoroughly entertaining victory. But it would be a big mistake to harp on it too long. For one, overconfidence against this Nuggets team is a sure-fire way to get blown out. But more importantly, the Warriors need to understand that they have a crucial opportunity here, and the job is not nearly finished yet. Game 4 is at Oracle on Sunday, and a Warriors win would give them a convincing 3-1 series lead. As an underdog, it cannot be overstated how huge that would be for the Warriors. It won’t be easy. Denver understands the situation just as clearly, and they won’t go down without a fight. But a win on Sunday would really put the Nuggets' backs against the wall, as well as give the Dubs a tremendous shot at advancing to the second round without entirely wearing themselves out to get there.
Two wins down. Two more to go. The opportunity is there for the Warriors. Let’s see if they can jump on it.