The Golden State Warriors shocked the Denver Nuggets in a 131-117 upset at the Pepsi Center last night to even the first round playoff matchup at one game apiece.
The Nuggets lost at home only three times during the regular season, and the Warriors had not been expected to put up much of a fight after David Lee left Saturday’s heartbreaker with a season-ending torn hip flexor injury.
Golden State faced a major challenge with their All Star power forward of the lineup and Harrison Barnes responded in kind. The rookie knocked down an impressive 24 points on .643 shooting with 6 rebounds in an effort that included two threes and several thunderous baseline dunks (including one reverse that nearly sent Kent Bazemore into hysterics).
Head Coach Mark Jackson gambled by starting Barnes over Carl Landry, who has clocked significant time as Lee’s backup at power forward. Barnes had played a very limited number of minutes at the four during the regular season, and although he has looked strong in spurts, he has also struggled with consistency.
Barnes was nothing if not consistent tonight. The rookie slid into his new role effortlessly, defending well in zone coverage and providing some much needed athleticism on the offensive end.
Jarrett Jack also stepped up. The should-have-been Sixth Man of the Year earned a rare start in the Warriors’ new small-ball lineup. He finished the game with 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting and managed the offense well in several key stretches, particularly at the end of the third quarter when Stephen Curry was forced to leave the game for two minutes after tweaking his left ankle.
Of course, the real story of the night in Denver was Curry, who recovered from a cold first quarter (1-of-5 shooting) by rolling off 15 second quarter points en route to a 30 point, 13 assist effort that propelled the Warriors to a crucial road win.
“We needed this win to go home 1-1 … Without D-Lee, this is the way we’ll have to play, everyone will get touches,” Curry told TNT after the game. “When guys go down, other guys step up.”
In addition to spearheading an impressive offense, the starting five also recorded a reasonably successful defensive effort that limited the Nuggets to only two points off turnovers through the first half. The speed afforded by Barnes certainly helped in this respect, but it was really the presence of Bogut that kept Denver’s more effective scorers away from the rim.
The Australian big man did all the little things right in Game 2, from providing effective help defense to setting monster screens (including one that sent Nuggets swingman Andre Igoudala hobbling off the court).
Those screens created ample opportunities for Curry, Jack and Thompson (who finished the game with 21 points on 5-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc), though it was clear on certain possessions that the Warriors missed Lee’s ability to knock down an 18 footer on pick and rolls.
Curry broke the game open in the second quarter after netting a wide-open three from the right side. Barnes had allowed himself to get trapped by two Nuggets defenders in the left corner, which forced Bogut to move from the paint to set a pick behind a Denver defender who was crowding the rookie. This allowed Barnes to dive toward the baseline, throwing the ball across the court to a now-open Stephen Curry, who had been abandoned in the corner by Andre Miller.
Curry bucketed the three, which gave the Warriors what was then the largest lead of the night at 50-42.
That play proved to be a backbreaker. Although the Nuggets pulled within six later in the quarter, they never put together a run in the second half that the Warriors couldn’t match with their own.
After Lee went out, I thought this series was over, but I guess someone told Harrison Barnes and Mark Jackson’s small ball lineup they had a chance.
- Festus Ezeli had a strong fourth quarter, something the Warriors needed desperately after Bogut picked fourth and fifth fouls in the opening minutes of the quarter. If Ezeli can improve his much-maligned ability to catch passes down low, he’ll have a long career in the NBA.
- Draymond Green will never be an All Star. He’ll probably never even start. But the former Big Ten Player of the Year turned in a handful of gritty plays that kept the Warriors ahead during critical fourth quarter possessions. In one, he beat out several Nuggets defenders for an offensive rebound, which he then kicked out to Thompson on the left wing for a three. Love me some Draymond.
- The Warriors benefitted from a rough night for Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried. The sophomore forward was clearly playing hurt, and struggled to defend Thompson and Curry on the perimeter. He finished the night with only 4 points and 2 rebounds in 21 minutes of play.
- Andre Miller refuses to die. The 37-year old point guard went 6-for-9 with 18 points on the night, handling some of the key possessions that kept the Nuggets within shouting distance of Golden State’s lead. That old man terrifies me.
- Here’s a note I wrote in the first quarter as prep in case the Warriors blew it: “Andre Igoudala went off early, putting his superior athleticism to work against Klay Thompson. Iggy went five-for-five in the first quarter, including two electrifying slam dunks and a pair of threes. Although Thompson has proven himself as an effective defender, he stood no match for Igoudala, who blew by him for his second dunk of the night.” Iggy couldn’t stay hot after that. He finished with 18 points and 7 assists.