The last time the Golden State Warriors won a playoff series, the number one song in the country was “Old Town Road,” viewers were furious about the disappointing finale of Game of Thrones, the most popular movie - John Wick Chapter 3 - Parabellum - featured Dallas Mavericks center/State Farm pitchman Boban Marjanovic getting killed with a book, and a presidential scandal had lawmakers calling for his impeachment. OK, that last one could have happened after about 15 different series wins.
But three years later, Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson won their 20th playoff series together, outlasting the ferocious Nikola Jokic and his tenacious Denver Nuggets, 102-98. Andre Iguodala, besuited and sore-necked on the bench, has 19 series wins with the group, and this was Kevon Looney’s 12th. Jokic gave the Warriors all they could handle, with 30 points, 19 rebounds, and 8 assists, which could have easily been 12 if his teammates were just a little more sure-handed or accurate with their jumpers. But down the stretch, Steph Curry just nudged him out thanks to some help from a player winning his first playoff series, Gary Payton II.
Trailing by eight points going into the fourth quarter, the Warriors fought back, finally taking the lead on a GPII three-pointer with seven minutes to go. Payton’s ability to knock down outside shots was huge on a night where the series got even more physical and the shots simply weren’t falling, and he made as many three-pointers as Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole, and Andrew Wiggins combined. With two Nuggets stalking Curry, Otto Porter Junior hit a wide-open Payton, and he calmly made like Willie Wilson in the 80s, and hit the triple.
You shouldn’t be surprised that pass was the State Farm Assist of the Night. I swear this article was not commissioned by Jake!
Payton followed up his big shot with a steal, but the Warriors couldn’t turn it into points. In fact, neither team scored for nearly three minutes, until Klay Thompson hit a jumper to give Golden State an 88-84 lead with four minutes to play. From then on it was a Jokic vs. Curry battle, with Payton as Curry’s loyal second. Jokic hit two free throws; Payton hit Curry for a jumper. Jokic tied the game with a floater and a long jumper; Curry hit a streaking Payton for a layup after the Nuggets brought a high double-team to take back the lead.
After the Warriors forced a shot clock violation, Aaron Gordon came out to overplay Curry, and Curry acted like Jokic this whole series, by putting Gordon on his back. Curry drove to the hoop like the two other Nuggets converging weren’t there, to push the lead to four points and force a Denver timeout.
Coach Michael Malone used his timeout wisely, drawing up a play that got Jokic another open shot to make it 94-92. Then, on a possession where all five Warriors touched the ball, Payton scooped up a low Andrew Wiggins pass and drilled his second triple of the quarter.
In the words of Lady MacBeth, “Is that a dagger I see before me?” You’re damn right it is, Lady M!
Of course Jokic wouldn’t give in, and he answered with a hook shot to cut the lead to three points. He had 12 points in the final four minutes, cementing his place as the Warriors’ scariest playoff opponent since LeBron James. So Steph Curry had to whip out one final piece of magic. Payton tried to screen for him, but Gordon and Monte Morris simply both followed Steph. After ranging to the corner, Steph simply dribbled past the double team, hit the layup, and put the Nuggets to bed.
Curry had 11 points and two assists in the 4th quarter, and 30 in the game overall, along with five rebounds and five assists. The Chef started a little slow in his first start of the post-season, only truly catching fire in the third quarter, when he hit back-to-back threes to cut the Denver lead to one point. Two minutes later, he answered a Will Barton three with his third triple of the quarter to cut it to 71-70. He really didn’t look like he was open for any of the three, but that’s the magic of Curry.
It looked like the Warriors were about to make like a group of stoners buying chicken at McDonald’s and overwhelm the Nuggets, but Boogie Cousins stepped up. He finished the quarter on a personal 7-0 run, giving the Nuggets an eight-point cushion going into the 4th that just wasn’t quite a big enough lead. Cousins had a career playoff-high of 19 points, on 8-12 shooting, inclusing two threes and only a single turnover. After so many injury-prone years, including a torn ACL and an Achilles, Boogie returned to peak form at the worst possible time for the Warriors. Kerr praised him after the game, and many Warriors hugged him, which should spark two months of rumors about him coming back to the Dubs next season.
The Warriors were effusive about all the Denver bigs. “Jokic is ridiculous,” said Coach Steve Kerr, after the game. “Really happy not to have to worry about him anymore.” Denver out-rebounded the Warriors 50-37, including a 14-6 advantage on the offensive boards. Thanks to their paint scoring, they earned 29 free throws to Golden State’s 21, and it’s only that close thanks to some late-game clock-stopping fouling by Denver. Gordon had 15 points and 8 rebounds for Denver as well, although all of those points came in the first half.
If you’re looking for a sign of how overwhelming the Nuggets bigs were, Draymond Green didn’t get his first rebound until there were less than five minutes left in the game. He finished with two.
Not that Draymond wasn’t a force. He was extremely aggressive on offense, an upturn in driving and shooting that he seemingly saved for the playoffs. Green had 11 points and six assists, plus a three, and he finished the first round with a very respectable 4-11 shooting mark from deep.
While he couldn’t always stop Jokic - no one can! - Green did block three shots and steal a pass, plus numerous other deflections, and as usual the team was much better when he was on the floor - he was +12 in 36 minutes; the team was -8 in the 12 minutes he sat. And he had absolutely no patience for Aaron Gordon’s tough guy routine.
He also drilled a teammate in the head with a pass for the second straight game. This time Otto Porter was the victim, and we can only assume he flipped his bat celebrating his three-pointer earlier.
For all the attention the Warriors three-guard lineup has received, the results were mixed in this series. Steve Kerr started Curry alongside Jordan Poole, Thompson, Wiggins, and Green, but it didn’t seem like the group was able to exploit their speed advantage. And they certainly couldn’t handle Gordon, who drew three shooting fouls in the first three minutes, and also got scored on a putback offensive rebound. Maybe that lineup should be called “A Slap In The Face To Kevon Looney.”
Speaking of Looney, he had a Curry-esque performance in Game Five, by which we mean that he came off the bench without complaint, and played way more minutes than expected. The Warriors settled down a bit when Looney came in for Poole early - aka, the “Maple Drew and the Loonatics” lineup - and he finished with 4 points, 7 rebounds, and a surprising three assists in 22 minutes. It was a short bench with Iguodala out, as Kerr played only nine guys, and one them was a five-minute guest spot from Jonathan Kuminga, where had four points, all at the rim.
The Joker had enough and blocked him on his final trip to the rim. Maybe it was the adjusted rotations, maybe it was going home, but the bench was much better, and had zero turnovers, a huge part of how the Warriors overcame their disadvantages elsewhere. They also didn’t have to deal with Game Four terror Austin Rivers, who injured his hamstring after just five minutes of play, and left the game for good. Without him, Coach Michael Malone mostly played big lineups, and gave extra minutes to rookie Bones Hyland. Though he rattled the Warriors with three straight three-pointers Sunday, tonight Denver’s Bones was as cold as the grave, missing all six of his shots.
After chasing records earlier in the series, Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole had relatively quiet games, scoring 15 and 8 points respectively, and two combined threes. They weren’t bad - Klay had nine rebounds and four steals, and Poole had some nice assists - but it still feels like the Warriors are figuring out how to divide up the shots when too many shooters are on the court. Wiggins had 12 points, five rebounds, and two assists, but his greatest contribution may have been in the third quarter, where he drew Jokic’s third and fourth personal fouls a minute apart. That sent the Joker to the bench, a huge reason he played only 32 minutes. Had he been able to take the floor for 36 minutes instead, this game easily could have had a different outcome.
Advancing to the second round also means that this was the last game of the season for Bob Fitzgerald and Kelenna Azubuike, as the remaining playoff games are all national telecasts. Perhaps it’s appropriate that this happened against the Nuggets, who were part of the pair’s most scandalous “incident” of the season, where they made fun of Austin Rivers and Facundo Campazzo. They’ll spend the off-season thinking of new geographical locations where Steph Curry could launch long threes, buy hair gel in bulk (Bob only), and spend time running with friends. Ta ta for now, fellas!
If Memphis can eliminate Minnesota on Friday night, the Warriors will play the Grizzlies on Sunday afternoon, a quick turnaround for the Grizz. If the series goes seven, then Game One of the second round isn’t until Tuesday, and if the Timberwolves pull the unlikely upset, they’d actually start at home. But betting against Ja Morant is a good way to lose money, and we fully expect a Sunday full of gritting and/or grinding. It’s the old guard versus the new guard, sourdough bread versus barbecue sauce, and the Grateful Dead versus Three Six Mafia. We can’t wait to see who whoops that trick when it’s all said and done.