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Short-handed Warriors fall just short against the champs

A great performance, but a tough loss.

Steph Curry driving by Michael Porter Jr. with Dario Šarić in the background. Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Golden State Warriors found themselves in a rare situation on Wednesday night: they were in a nothing-to-lose game. Playing without their two best defenders, Draymond Green and Gary Payton II — with the former being one of the best defenders in the league against Nikola Jokić — the Warriors were tasked with a road contest against the elite Denver Nuggets, who have picked up right where they left off after hoisting their first ever championship trophy back in June.

Denver was also shorthanded, as they were without starting point guard Jamal Murray. But even so, they were the clear favorite. And with the Warriors off to a nice start to the season, one in which they were not desperate for a win, it felt like a stress-free game. They could play freely and fearlessly, knowing that a win would be an awesome — not expected — outcome (don’t tell them that, though).

The start of the game went as one might have expected. Klay Thompson knocked down a jumper on the very first possession of the game, but then the defending champs rattled off 11 consecutive points to take control of the game, while the Dubs racked up a trio of turnovers.

Perhaps sensing an opportunity for his team to grow and develop, Steve Kerr let his starting five — the usual suspects, with Dario Šarić replacing Green — play through it. He didn’t stop the action with a timeout, and eventually Golden State stopped the bleeding when Kevon Looney muscled his way to the rim for an and-one.

That play seemed to give the Dubs a little bit of life, but the points remained hard to come by. They buckled down defensively and turned into into a grind-it-out affair, with a Looney basket right at the halfway mark making it a 14-7 deficit. They weren’t scoring, but thanks in large part to Looney’s sensational defense on the usually-dominant Jokić, they weren’t letting Denver score, either.

For a while it looked like the Nuggets would pull away. The first round of substitutions — Chris Paul and Trayce Jackson-Davis — came in, and Denver pushed the lead to 10. Shortly after Kerr went to a full bench — Paul, Jackson-Davis, Brandin Podziemski, Moses Moody, and Jonathan Kuminga — the deficit was 25-13.

Then the bench did what it has so blissfully done all year: it started to take over. Podziemski reached deep into his bag to pull out a sensational and-one in the lane, TJD showed outstanding instincts, and Moody and Kuminga displayed wonderful chemistry. Moody even checked to make sure the bank was still open before knocking in a three off the glass, giving the Warriors their only triple of the quarter, as the bench Dubs closed on an 8-1 run. Denver led 26-21 after the quarter, but considering that Steph Curry hadn’t scored, it felt like a win.

The second quarter saw offenses abandon their usual poetry in favor of slog. Even down Green and Payton, the Dubs put on a defensive masterclass against the champs. Moody, Kuminga, and Jackson-Davis all impressed defensively, and even though Golden State didn’t force a Denver turnover until 1:40 left in the second quarter, it was an effort to be proud of, and it kept Golden State within shouting distance entering the second half, as they trailed by six. That was about all you could ask for.

Just as they did when the first half started, Denver tried to put things away early in the second half, with a pair of quick buckets making it a double-digit game. But once again Golden State fought back. Andrew Wiggins, who had a dismal first half, showed some signs of life, while Curry put his silent first quarter well behind him with some superstar offense. Within four minutes, the lead had been cut to three.

And yet again the bench was up to the task. The Dubs had pulled within two points when Curry went to the bench with four minutes remaining in the third frame. Led by energy and some slick plays from their rookies — plus the steady presence of Paul, the Warriors started to turn the tide. A pair of free throws by TJD set the score at the end of three, with the Warriors leading 78-76: their first lead since Klay’s jumper on the first possession.

Paul nailed a three to open the fourth quarter, giving Golden State a five-point lead. But Denver came roaring back, with Jokić finally starting to find the effortless dominance and rhythm that he usually plays with. The Nuggets flipped it to a five-point lead of their own, but the Warriors answered, too. Wiggins had an aggressive fourth, Paul made a handful of shots, and Golden State kept it very close.

The final minutes gave fans a game befitting the ESPN marquee billing. With about a minute left, Paul got a good look at a game-tying three, but just missed it. Wiggins fought to keep the ball alive, and dove out of bounds to try and save it, but sent it to Denver instead. Then, trying to get the possession back, Wiggins immediately went for a steal and ended up committing a foul instead. That allowed the Nuggets to push the lead to five, and when the Warriors missed a shot it seemed like it was over.

But they forced a turnover on the other end, which led to a ridiculous lean-in three from Curry to make it a two-point game with about 15 seconds remaining.

Jokić, normally so steady, gifted the Warriors a pair of missed free throws, and suddenly Golden State had a chance to force overtime ... or better yet, win it.

They got the look they wanted. Curry found a hole in the defense and galavanted down the lane for a left-handed finger roll that we’ve seen him make so many times; just not this time. Moody nearly kept the ball alive, but the Dubs were forced to play the foul game.

It still wasn’t over. Reggie Jackson marched to the line with about five seconds remaining and made the first free throw, making it a three-point game. But he missed the second.

The Warriors were out of timeouts, so they had to rush. Paul grabbed the rebound and tried to lead Thompson up the court for a game-tying three, but the pass was just a little too ambitious, and while Klay was able to reach out for the ball, he couldn’t gather it in time to get a shot off.

That led to the buzzer, and a 108-105 Nuggets win. To come that close and lose is frustrating, and it will surely be a long flight home for the Dubs.

But all things considered, it was one hell of a performance, and one they should feel good about as they head into a pair of off days, before looking to exact revenge against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday.

Curry finished with a team-high 23 points, as six Warriors finished in double figures: Thompson (15), Wiggins (11), Looney (10), Kuminga (10), and Moody (10). Despite the size disadvantage, Golden State out-rebounded Denver 49-45. But even the new-look ball-security Dubs couldn’t beat the Nuggets in the turnover game: they only committed nine turnovers, but that was half again as many as Denver had. And even though Looney, Šarić, and Jackson-Davis did well against Jokić, the star center still finished with 35 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, and three steals.

You win some, you lose some. Hard to be too upset about this one.

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