The Golden State Warriors officially punched their ticket to the Western Conference Semifinals on Wednesday with a 102-98 Game 5 victory over the Denver Nuggets. While the Dubs jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, Denver could have forced the Warriors back to Denver for Game 6 with a win. Instead, the Warriors clinched a 4-1 series win.
The Warriors finally moved Steph Curry back into the starting lineup, shifting center Kevon Looney to the bench for just the third time this season, and Golden State’s new rotation found success early. The Nuggets used an early burst from Aaron Gordon to keep things close, but despite Gordon’s 12 first-quarter points, Denver trailed 30-25 at the end of the first quarter.
None of the Warriors heavy offensive hitters found their rhythm in the first half. Without explosions from Curry, Jordan Poole, or Klay Thompson, the Warriors struggled to hold their lead. On the other side of the ball, Nuggets big men Nikola Jokić and DeMarcus Cousins each consistently gave Golden State problems.
Coming out of the half tied at 48, the Warriors looked out of sorts throughout the third quarter. Their shots were not falling from the outside, and while they had some success getting to the free-throw line, they struggled to convert. As Golden State began forcing the issue, some ugly turnovers followed. The Nuggets built a 10-point lead before Curry finally had a short shooting burst to bring things back to single digits.
Jokić picked up his fourth foul roughly halfway through the third quarter, and went to the bench for the final minutes of the frame. However, Golden State was still unable to retake the lead in large part because of Cousins. Showing flashes of his All-Star days from early in his career with the Kings, Cousins was an offensive force that the Warriors could not stop.
Jokić was dealing with hamstring tightness late in the game as well. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone tried to get him back on the floor early in the fourth quarter, but Jokić quickly picked up his fifth foul and returned to the bench.
The Warriors retook the lead with seven minutes left in regulation and Jokić was quickly reinserted by Malone. Both teams began exchanging empty possessions as players on both sides looked visibly exhausted. The Nuggets were fighting to keep their season alive. The Warriors were fighting to send Denver home for good. They say the last win in any series is the hardest to get. It sure looked like that on Wednesday.
After both teams struggled to find the bottom of the net for most of the quarter, each team’s stars delivered big buckets in the final minutes. Jokić made multiple heavily contested jump shots, but Thompson and Curry each finished layups that kept the Dubs one step ahead.
Leading 94-92 in the final 90 seconds, a broken Warriors possession left Gary Payton II open from the right wing. He knocked it down, one of several big shots from Payton over the course of the game, and gave the Warriors a five-point lead.
Jokić quickly answered with a basket of his own. Now leading 97-94, Curry drove through the paint and around Jokić to finish a left-handed layup to return Golden State’s lead to two-possessions. Jokić misfired a three on the other end, and the result was decided.
It was an ugly win for the Warriors. Curry scored a team high 30 points, but shot just 10-for-22 from the field. Thompson and Payton each scored 15 points, but no one else scored more than 12.
Jokić recorded 28 points, 19 rebounds, 8 assists, 6 turnovers, 5 fouls, 2 blocks, and 1 steal. Coming off the bench, Cousins was the Nuggets’ second-best player, scoring 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting from the field, but only played 15 minutes off the bench.
The Warriors now await the conclusion of the first-round matchup between the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves. The Grizzlies lead the series 3-2, but Minnesota will have an opportunity to even the series on their home floor on Friday.