"We don't always make the playoffs. But when we do, we win our first round series." - Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors have suddenly become the most interesting franchise in the world. Having appeared in just seven post-seasons since 1978 (including this year), the Warriors have been the underdog five times - once as a five-seed (1987), twice as a seventh-seed (1989 and 1991), once as an eighth-seed (2007) and now as sixth-seed. In the previous four times the Warriors have been a first round underdog, they have won the series by going small against teams with better big men who panicked and adjusted to the Warriors by going small themselves. And it has never worked for the higher seed.
That's four-for-four for the Warriors, Nuggets fans.
Add that to the fact that only eight teams in NBA history have overcome a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series, none since 2006, and things aren't looking good for our Denver Nuggets. And in a post-season with a weakened Oklahoma City Thunder, an injured, irrelevant, erratic Los Angeles Lakers and an aging San Antonio Spurs, no less.
Talk about a wasted opportunity.
That said, of the eight teams in NBA history to overcome that 3-1 deficit the last three - the 2006 Phoenix Suns, the 2003 Detroit Pistons and the 1997 Miami Heat - all had home court advantage, just as Denver does. Meaning, the Nuggets pathway to a unlikely series win requires two home wins and just one road win. Not an insurmountable task by any means, which is why I think it's premature to talk about the future of this Nuggets team or where this Nuggets team ranks among the great Nuggets teams of all time until the series, or (god forbid) its successor, is over.
Of the few previous examples of a higher seed overcoming a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series, both the Suns in 2006 and the Pistons in 2003 provide the best blueprint for Denver. Facing a 3-1 deficit thanks to a red hot Kobe Bryant and his Lakers, the 2006 Suns trounced the Lakers at Phoenix in Game 5, gutted out an overtime thriller at Staples Center in Game 6 and then the Lakers, with their spirit crushed - including Bryant - laid down for the Suns in a blowout Game 7. In that catalyst Game 5, the Suns were able to let Bryant and Lamar Odom go off while their role-player teammates struggled and their confidence was never regained.
Similar to the Suns facing Bryant (and our Nuggets now being tested thoroughly by Stephen Curry), the 2003 Pistons had to deal with an emerging superstar themselves in the form of Tracy McGrady, who stupidly said "It feels good to get in the second round" after leading his underdog Orlando Magic to a 3-1 series lead. Using that quote as bulletin board material, the Pistons - devoid of a superstar but deep and talented like today's Nuggets - decimated McGrady and the Magic in Game 5 (they held the Magic to 67 points!) ... and then blew the Magic out in Games 6 and 7, as well.
Point being, if our Nuggets are to somehow win their first round series against the upstart Warriors and their star, Curry, the Nuggets must destroy their hopes and dreams in emphatic fashion in Game 5 or there won't be a Game 7 at Pepsi Center. But what concerns me is that this Nuggets team - unlike their Phoenix and Detroit predecessors - have clearly lost their way, just as many higher seeds have in the past when ceding ground, and confidence, to lower seeds. For some unknown and unfathomable reason, the Nuggets have allowed a lesser experienced, lesser talented, and lesser coached team to dictate this series from Game 1 onward. Frankly, the Nuggets are lucky they get to play a fifth game on Tuesday night inside the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center because this series should have been a Warriors sweep.
How did we get here?
For starters, Nuggets head coach George Karl too quickly gave up on his big men even though the Nuggets were among NBA regular season leaders in "playoff categories" like points-in-the-paint, field goal percentage, rebounds, blocked shots and second chance opportunities. Starting center Kosta Koufos (who contributed solidly all season long) and backup center JaVale McGee (who was THE reason the Nuggets took the Lakers to seven games last season despite being down 3-1) look completely lost and their confidence is clearly shot as Karl has gone to playing small in this series to counter the Warriors "small ball." This has allowed the Warriors to get into the paint at will with no consequences while preventing the Nuggets from getting second chance opportunities - again, their regular season specialty. Meanwhile, the Warriors front line - sans David Lee, mind you! - of Andrew Bogut and Carl Landry have been killing the Nuggets inside offensively.
Secondly, by bringing out the giant stage hook for his bigs so early in the series, the problem has been compounded by having the aging Andre Miller playing defense on the Warriors' red hot little guards like Stephen Curry and Jarrett Jack. Slow to switch, Miller's defensive deficiencies have allowed the Warriors to exploit one of the Nuggets great weaknesses: defending the three ball. And even if Miller and his teammates get to the switch on the three-point shooter, the shooter then has a clear path to the basket because there's no big to punish the Warriors for going inside. I'd rather take my chances with Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer defending Curry and Jack.
Thirdly, during various Warriors runs in each game, Karl has failed to call timeouts to stem the tide against his team. So not only is Karl's gambling, gimmicky defense not shutting down the Warriors offense, but Karl isn't calling timeouts for his players to regroup and the Warriors to (presumably) cool off. The NBA gives you too many timeouts for a reason, after all.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Karl has abruptly changed his strategy to match the Warriors rather than force the Warriors to change their game to match the Nuggets. Being taller and having a deeper bench, the Nuggets should have dictated this series from the opening tip of Game 1 with hard-nosed, physical playoff basketball that forces turnovers and hard-fouls would-be layups by the opposition. Instead, the Warriors went small and the Nuggets went into scramble mode - and it hasn't worked. Simply put, the Warriors have never been punished for going small and instead have run all over the Nuggets. And it's embarrassing to watch.
Adding insult to the history lesson that the Nuggets are partaking in right now is the emergence of Curry, the rich man's Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Teaching us all once again that the team with the best player, not better players, usually wins a playoff series, Curry's coming out party is making many All-Star Game voters second guess their Curry snub right now. The kid if fabulous and the Nuggets apparently have no answer for him ... despite Ty Lawson's gutty effort in each game.
To recap, here's what the Nuggets are up against if they're to win a series they were supposed to take easily in the first place ...
... 1) the Nuggets will need to become the ninth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit to win a series. Out of the 210 series in which one team had a 3-1 series lead, only eight didn't win the series.
... 2) the Nuggets will need to end the Warriors streak of four straight playoff series won from the underdog position.
...3) the Nuggets will need to shut down Curry, who's solely proving once again why superstars win playoff series and collections of good players typically stay home in May and June.
If the Nuggets had competed in Game 4, or had any semblance of a decent strategy in Games 1 through 4, I'd have a lot more confidence heading into Game 5 given that the Nuggets ultimately have home court advantage. (And lest we forget that Karl led the Nuggets from a 3-1 deficit to a Game 7 at the Lakers last season.) But if Karl insists on sitting his bigs and continuing to play gambling defense on the perimeter with the aging Miller, that much-needed Game 5 blowout seems like a stretch. And to be clear, simply winning Game 5 isn't enough for the Nuggets to win the series: Game 5 has to be a confidence-shaking decimation of the Golden State Warriors.
If not, the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets will be relegated to the dustbin of NBA history ... early again ... along with virtually every other Nuggets team from the Karl Era.