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Lob disaster cancels Poole Party, Nuggets survive 126-121

With their backs against the wall, the Nuggets gutted out a big win to stay live in their first-round series. And Steve Kerr would like to have a certain play call back.

DENVER NUGGETS VS GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS, NBA
Austin Rivers has a family reunion with Steph Curry at the three-point line
Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In Game Three of the Golden State Warriors’ first-round series against the Denver Nuggets, Andrew Wiggins snagged a huge offensive rebound and got a big bucket to help the Warriors to a comeback victory, after Draymond Green made a big defensive play late on Nikola Jokic. In Game Four, Wiggins got another huge offensive rebound but clanged it off the rim when he tried to dunk it, then Austin Rivers stole a lob pass to him before he could even attempt a big bucket. This time Jokic made a big defensive effort in calling out the play before it happened, and Draymond fouled out so he wasn’t there to stop the Joker’s huge assist for a game-sealing three-pointer by Will Barton, and the Nuggets held on to win 126-121, staying alive in the first-round series, 3-1.

The series now heads back to the Chase Center, while the Warriors - and their glamorous new small ball lineup - have their first big test of the post-season. After 86 points in the first three games of the series, Jordan Poole scored just 11 on Sunday afternoon, thanks to some extremely physical defense from the Nuggets, particularly the Archbishop Mitty Assassin, Aaron Gordon, who showed all the toughness he developed on the mean courts of San Jose private schools while introducing Poole to rough playoff basketball. Gordon came out very aggressive, getting double technicals with Draymond Green just 40 seconds into the game after Green fouled Jokic. Honestly, seemed a little harsh to give Draymond a T when he was really just standing there while a guy who looked like the bass player from Crazy Town got in his face. And the Warriors responded a little too wildly.

Klay Thompson had eight points in the first 3:16 of the game, but immediately had to sit after picking up his second foul seconds later, part of the whopping eight fouls the Dubs committed in the first alone. Jokic is tough to guard, but the Warriors couldn’t stop fouling Gordon, who shot 10-13 from the free throw line. They never quite had answer for Denver’s physicality, falling a little too far behind in the first two quarters, so that even a 69-point second half (nice!) wasn’t enough to win it.

Steph Curry had 33 points despite a slow start - he missed his first five shots - and the worst free-throw shooting performance of his career. He went 10-14 from the line, a decent showing by almost anyone except the NBA’s all-time leading free throw shooter. The four misses were the most he’d missed in any game in his career, and twice as many as he’d missed in any previous playoff game. For the season, Curry missed just 23 free throws in 64 games, but he’s missed eight in the four games of this series.

Other than the freebies, Chef Curry had an excellent game, adding eight assists and four steals to his stat line, with only two turnovers, one coming immediately after one of those steals. His Brother in Splash Klay Thompson was on fire, hitting seven three-pointers and scoring 32 points. It hurt that he was limited to 31 minute due to foul trouble, picking up his 4th after re-entering the game with 0.6 seconds left in the second quarter, on a call we could generously call “questionable,” but more aptly could be considered “bulls—-.”

Klay also got a tough whistle on a reach-in foul on Jokic early that looked very much like a clean tie-up. Though he played almost the entire second half, not having Klay for more than nine minutes is a big reason why the Warriors trailed by 11 points at the half. To his credit, Klay only picked up one additional foul, and wasn’t fazed even when Draymond drilled him in the head at point-blank range. Did Klay try to bunt for a hit with a six-run lead or something?

It didn’t even count as a turnover, because Otto Porter Junior was whistled for a moving screen on Bones Hyland before Klay’s beaning. Klay did not go into the concussion protocol, and recovered enough to put up nine points in the 4th.

Another huge reason was Nikola Jokic, who scored 18 points in the first quarter alone, while snagging six rebounds and almost single-handedly getting Denver into the bonus halfway through the quarter. He finished with 37 points on 14-21 shooting, and he’s now the leading scorer in the playoffs at 31.3 points per game. seven turnovers, he was the best player on the floor all game. The Joker also had six assists, none bigger than when he avoided a collapsing Warriors defense and hit Will Barton in the corner for a three-pointer that gave Denver a five-point lead with 7.9 seconds to go.

Warriors guards leaving three-point shooters to ineffectively double Nikola Jokic? When have we seen that before?

Gordon finished with 21 points, largely on the back of his ten free throws, with six rebounds, four assists, a steal, and two blocks. He was a huge part of the Denver starters playing almost even with the Warriors’ top guys, which, along with the Nuggets dominant bench, gave Denver the win. Monte Morris had 24 points, including a 15-point third quarter where he went 5-for-5 from distance. That’s as many three-pointers as Poole, Curry, and Thompson hit combined. Morris and Jokic combined for 26 points in the third, which is also what Three Guard Night (this is anothe rnickname that won’t stick) put up. The Warriors scored 37 points, but they made up almost no ground because the Nuggets had 35.

Morris also hit a clutch jumper with 33 seconds left to give Denver a lead they’d never relinquish. Monte Morris clutch game-winner against the Dubs? See above.

Where did the Warriors lose this one? The easiest answer is, when Draymond Green wasn’t on the court. Green played 34 minutes, in which the Warriors outscored Denver by 18 points. In the 14 minutes he sat, Denver outscored Golden State by 23 points. Green shot 5-6, grabbed 11 rebounds, and dished six assists. He had two steals and only two turnovers, though beaning Klay really should have counted for one. Green also did a remarkable job of countering Denver’s “Let’s get Draymond ejected” strategy, mostly led by Braider Nation himself, Aaron Gordon. In fact, when Morris gave Draymond a hard foul on a dunk attempt, both came up laughing. That’s the kind of response the Warriors need to have going forward when Denver tries to bait them.

In contrast to Draymond, his subs had a rough time of it. Andre Iguodala played 12:33, and had almost nothing positive in his statline. He didn’t score, or even take a shot, committed five fouls, turned the ball over twice, and had a single rebound. Denver wasn’t bothering to guard Andre at all, giving him multiple opportunities to shoot threes with no one within ten feet of him, correctly judging he’d pass them up. The offensively-challenged combination of Iguodala, Porter, Nemanja Bjelica, and Gary Payton II came in with four minutes to go in the first quarter and got absolutely torched, giving up a 14-7 run before Bjelica was pulled for good.

It got worse in the next few minutes as the Warriors defense got slashed up by a Bones saw. Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland went off, hitting three consecutive three-pointers, the last one from 33 feet, to give the Nuggets a 40-23 lead. On the last one, Wiggins was guarding him at the three-point line, but he’d established pretty clearly he had more range than Bruce Hornsby at band practice.

The Warriors crawled back a bit thanks to a Boogie Cousins mini-meltdown where he racked up two personal fouls and a technical in less than a minute, the T happening after he drew a foul on Draymond, but remained unhappy. But for the game he was hugely effective, scoring ten points on just three field goal attempts, and adding two assists.

How did the Warriors stay afloat? A big assist from rookie Jonathan Kuminga, who’d fallen out of the rotation after Iguodala’s return. Kuminga played nearly the entire second quarter, which was criminally his only action of the game. He scored nine points, all on dunks, layups, and free throws, and drew four Denver fouls by himself.

At least if they were going to call an obvious lob play in crunch time, bring in Kuminga, baby!

Speaking of that lob play, it happened after a second half full of near-comebacks. In the third, every run was countered by a Monte Morris three. Klay Thompson had a personal 7-0 run to bring the Warriors within seven; Morris hit a three to bring the lead to double-digits again. On four straight possessions, Jordan Poole had three assists (he had five in the quarter) and a deep three to cut the lead to seven again; a Morris three made the lead double-digits again. Draymond had two free throws and a jumper to cut the lead to eight; Morris hit another three to make it 11. Then when Morris sat after his third foul of the quarter, Curry got whistled for traveling right after stealing it from Jokic - looking like an easy fast break bucket - Curry-in-law Austin Rivers hit his only three of the game to make the lead 11, a five-point swing.

Rivers was huge off the bench from Denver, finally earning some bragging rights for future family Thanksgivings, playing 36 minutes and grabbing five steals, to go with his three assists. And if you’re only going to make one shot, it should be a run-stopping three.

The lead was still ten points with six minutes to go in the game, when the Warriors stopped missing shots. They made three of their next four shots, and the miss was rebounded by Poole, who found Klay for a bucket. Despite the video going around showing Klay seeming “sick of Poole,” Poole hits Klay for a bucket seconds later, cutting the lead to 115-112.

With 2:28, Andrew Wiggins dunked to cut the lead to two and give Steve Kerr far too much confidence about his ability to do it again. Overall Wiggins was very solid, with 20 points and six rebounds, plus two steals and two blocked shots. On the next sequence, Gordon fouled out Draymond and hit both free throws, but Curry returned the favor, getting an and-one off a Gordon foul to tie it up with 1:47 left. After Morris lost the ball out of bounds, Curry hit another step-back jumper - just barely inside the arc - to give the Warriors a 121-119 lead, their first in nearly 44 minutes.

Jokic tied the game with a layup, where he simply out-muscled Porter for position, and then Klay missed a corner three. Once again, Wiggins snuck past two Nuggets to get the rebound, but he missed an emphatic putback dunk that would have likely ended the series.

In the Warriors’ first questionable coaching decision, they brought in Kevon Looney to guard Jokic, but ran a box-and-one defense, something you rarely see against a center. Morris found a hole in the zone and hit a fairly easy floater to give Denver the lead. Questionable decision two was calling an obvious lob play for Wiggins, and the third questionable element was bringing in Porter to throw the in-bounds pass, instead of lob maestro Iguodala. Jokic came out of the game for defensive purposes, but he predicted the lob play seconds before it happened, and Rivers had little trouble taking the pass away from Wiggins. Yes, the Dubs were trying to go two-for-one, but it’s definitely a Light Years Ahead move to ignore three incredibly potent scorers to try a high-risk trick play - the basketball equivalent of Jim Harbaugh calling an end zone fade pass against Richard Sherman.

In an exclusive postgame interview with No Duh Sports, Steve Kerr said, “I would like that play call back, frankly,” and you’re not going to find a lot of differing opinions, except from the Denver locker room.

What will the Warriors take away from this? They’ll probably move Curry into the starting lineup in favor of Poole, which temporarily solves the problem of Aaron Gordon pushing him around. It’s probably for the best that Poole ran into this roadblock up 3-0 in the first round rather than later in the playoffs, where the strategy is likely to be attempted again. Best to figure out the workaround in April, not May.

There also may be additional playing time for Kuminga, at the expense of either Bjelica or Iguodala. The lack of scoring for bench lineups, particularly in the second quarter, could be a concern, with many of the reserves seeming reluctant to shoot. Porter especially seems to be reacting to his recent outside shooting woes, and he didn’t attempt a shot in 15 minutes. Of course, backups and role players usually play better at home, so this all might look like unnecessary panic after Wednesday night’s Game Five.

The other lesson is that every single team in the NBA Playoffs is dangerous, and that goes double when they have an all-time great playing center. The Warriors didn’t match the Nuggets’ energy early, and they paid for it by having to come back from so far down. These bench guys are old, so the chance to get an extra few days off should be inspiration enough to close things out at home. But maybe let someone else inbound the ball in big moments.