With the score at 36-35, Warriors, and 7:30 remaining in the second quarter, the Nuggets seemed to be on course for righting the ship. Another early attack by Andrew Bogut flustered the Nuggets, but they looked to be on the verge of taking the lead into the second half with that all-important momentum. They were poised to turn the series around and perhaps steal a game in the golden overload of northern California.
Then it all fell apart.
In the next 6:54, the Warriors went on an extended 20-9 run to close the half. Leading 47-44, the Warriors were helped along by perhaps the worst three minutes of basketball I've seen the Nuggets play this year:
3:11 - Klay Thompson makes 12-foot two point shot3:00 - JaVale McGee charge (turnover)2:41 - Jarret Jack makes two point shot2:28 - Corey Brewer lost ball turnover2:06 - Stephen Curry makes 31 foot three point shot2:02 - Andre Iguodala offensive foul (turnover)1:57 - Kenneth Faried personal foul1:57 - Jarret Jack makes free throws 2-21:39 - Ty Lawson misses 26 foot pullup three point shot1:14 - Corey Brewer misses three point jumper0:58 - Andre Iguodala lost ball turnover0:44 - Carl Landry makes 8-foot two point shot0:37 - Andre Iguodala lost ball turnover0:02 - Ty Lawson bad pass
Instead of potentially taking a lead into the second half, the Nuggets fumbled their way into 5 turnovers, 3 fouls, and two bricked 3 point attempts by Ty Lawson and Corey Brewer. By the time the halftime buzzer sounded, the fired-up Oracle crowd exulted their team into a 12 point lead 56-44 heading into the break and the Warriors never looked back.
The Nuggets made it interesting at a few points during the second half starting with a 21-13 run to start the third quarter on the back of a clearly frustrated Lawson - even getting the lead down to two points - but never really threatened the Warriors down the stretch. Lawson turned his ankle at one point, which would be worrying if it looked like the Nuggets had a chance to advance past the first round.
They fought hard for 10 minutes in the third quarter, but there were no other answers from the Nuggets. Stephen Curry got hot, and the Warriors closed the third quarter similarly to the way they closed the second, taking the Nuggets into the fourth with a comfortable 19-point cushion. That was all they needed. The Nuggets finally outrebounded the Warriors, to no avail, turning the ball over 23 times (7 by Iguodala alone) and committing 27 personal fouls.
Again, the Nuggets seemed entirely flustered by the 2-3 zone Mark Jackson employed. Early on, the Nuggets were breaking down the zone with a series of shots by Iguodala and driving attempts by Lawson and Andre Miller. As their legs wearied, however, more and more shots came from the perimeter and the Nuggets fell in love with the three point shot they just aren't that good at making. The Nuggets ended up shooting 6-20 from beyond the arc, while the Warriors shot 11-25.
Meanwhile, the Nuggets had no answer for Bogut and Curry who bruised the Nuggets inside and out. Curry was electric, connecting on shot after shot any other player would have missed many times. The Nuggets allowed the Warriors to shoot well over 50% for a majority of the game and the defensive intensity was again largely nonexistent. It wasn't even the fault of a particular player (despite Andre Miller's continued inability to check Curry on the perimeter, which Karl has largely refused to recognize), the Nuggets failed collectively and lost collectively.
At one point, Karl even inserted Julyan Stone, perhaps finally recognizing Andre Miller's defensive struggles to guard the perimeter. Stone hadn't seen the court since spraining his MCL, but it was to little avail - too little, too late. For the game, the Warriors shot over 55% - something many in the Denver community thought impossible to replicate, yet here we have it.
It's tough to know how to feel right now. The Nuggets won a franchise-best 57 games this season, fought tooth and nail and claw for the all-important home court advantage and were even considered the favorite heading into the series - only to utterly collapse, the losers of three straight after a thrilling Game 1 in the Pepsi Center. I want to laud the Nuggets for growing as a young team, for Masai Ujiri and Karl keeping this team near the top of a brutal Western Conference, and I want to excoriate them for not displaying the necessary mental focus and consistency needed to win a seven game series.
Let's not forget that the Nuggets are even younger than the Rockets and Warriors when you remove Andre Miller from the equation. They've come farther as a team than most thought possible, even through the devastating injury to Danilo Gallinari, and they should be given credit for fighting as hard as they have. Like many Nuggets fans, though, I wanted more. I expected more. There were no hard fouls in tonight's game. No fight. No will to win, other than Lawson's. Slumped shoulders, terrible body language, missed free throws. The Nuggets looked defeated, beaten. Lawson limped off the floor at the end of the game, and has to be considered questionable to play in Game 5 in Denver.
Curry deserves credit for living up to his growing reputation as the best shooter in the NBA. He scored 31 points on 6-11 from beyond the arc, dishing out 7 assists and thieving 4 rocks from the Nuggets. The Nuggets have simply been unable to find an answer for him all series. Many commentators and fans recognized that keeping Miller on Curry was a recipe for disaster, but Karl stubbornly stuck with his trusted veteran. As we saw all tonight and through the other three games of this trainwreck, Curry was able to shoot over and through Miller as though he were a traffic cone. A traffic cone may actually have played better defense. I digress, though - Curry deserves a lot of credit and is maturing into a bonafide superstar. He will be a handful for any team in the future.
Prior to this game, a lot of talk was centered around the Warriors getting overconfident and perhaps relinquishing the focus that brought them to a 2-1 series lead. Although it wavered at times, the Warriors buckled down, and took care of business at home - something the Nuggets were unable to do. The Warriors never looked overconfident, as the Nuggets did, in their home games. The discipline of playing smart basketball, taking good shots, and understanding your opponent's tendencies simply disappeared for a supposedly more talented and deeper Nuggets team.
George Karl, for all his strengths as a teacher and a developer of the NBA's cast-off players, seemed simply unable to gain the focus of a team that desperately needed it in a critical playoff situation. Once again, questions about Karl's ability to coach this team to win in the playoffs swirl and darken - a sad refrain we've heard time and time again. George Karl finally got the team he wanted, and is again facing another first round exit, despite being the favorites with home court advantage. That is the bottom line. Spin it however you want to.
The Nuggets now face the arduous task of winning three straight games to avoid their 9th exit from the first round in 10 years. It starts with mental toughness and defense, and to this point the Nuggets simply haven't shown it. Should the Nuggets fall once more in the first round, very tough questions loom for this team about their ability as presently constructed to win in the postseason. Game 5 will be played in the Pepsi Center on Tuesday night at 6:00 pm MT, where the Nuggets will play the first of three desperation games to keep their postseason hopes alive.