Warriors/Nuggets: Snatching Victory From Victory
(originally written 1/3/16)
(Before we get into Warriors basketball, I'd like to use this forum to complain about, well, every print media outlet's reporting of the injury to Nuggets PF Kenneth Faried late in Denver's eventual 111-108 overtime loss to the Golden State Warriors on January 2—each and every one of them described Faried as "taking an elbow to the neck". They all failed to point out it was his own man (Will Barton) who did it, leaving the uninformed to possibly infer Golden State won because one of their guys gave Faried—who'd been living up to the "Manimal" moniker—a cheap shot late. THERE, I said it.)
I've long attributed the Warriors 2014-15 success to one understated factor: favorable health. Only two of their guys missed any notable time last season, and in hindsight, losing one of those guys ended up helping the team. Well, somewhere the hoop gods are trying to even things out a little bit as we open 2016. It's been some time since Golden State was forced to play with only nine dudes—it's possible they did last year because Steve Kerr chose to non-suit dudes; can't recall for sure and that wouldn't count anyway—but they had to against a Denver team short on wins of late, but more than capable of quality basketball.
One of the nine was the great Stephen Curry, whose mere presence helped Draymond Green sink four 3's in the first three minutes of action from various spots on the court. Back after two games off, Curry himself had minimal impact on the score; he only shot six times in what ended up being one half of play—but Golden State's grip on the game had loosened well before then; more on that later.
Green, and possibly the Warrior staff, deserves credit for not letting his early success from behind the arc take him out of his game. Green didn't take an ill-advised 3 until very late in the 4th, and even during his early flurry he still looked to back guys down on some possessions and moved the ball if the shot wasn't there (14 more assists; the guy's averaging 7.4 from the 4 spot). Not a knock on Klay Thompson or Curry obviously, but we all know what the Splash Brothers do after splashing two in a row...they develop tunnel vision to the three-point line, especially when their home fans start to buzz.
37-13 Dubs after one quarter, and Denver had to rally late just to achieve that as they continue to play without young PG Emmanuel Mudiay—though the kid still can't fall from a boat and hit water, his team was 9-14 when he was injured but has dropped 9 of their past 10. No sympathy from Warrior fans—on this night, there would be no Harrison Barnes (despite reports that both he and coach Kerr could return), no Festus Ezeli, no Leandro Barbosa, no James McAdoo—no way Denver has two five-shot possessions in this game if he and/or Barnes are active—and no Brandon Rush suiting up for Golden State.
(I don't mean this to pick on Brandon, who's spent enough time as a target. But at any time last season could you imagine B-Rush's absence actually hurting the Dubs? That's a testament to how far he's come with his game this season.)
That still left plenty of Warrior firepower and the energy from 20,000 strong at Oracle Arena, so the fast start was only surprising because of its primary source (Green's 18 in the first quarter). Soon, however, the reality of nine healthy players—including a rusty one who wasn't fully healthy—set in. Energy dipped, and when that happens, so do shooting percentages and assist/turnover ratios.
By the third quarter, Golden State was down to eight dudes—none of them named Curry, who despite looking rather springy on a steal six minutes in, aggravated his injured leg and sat the second half. By overtime, center Andrew Bogut was disqualified with six fouls, and we wondered if coach Luke Walton would need to be dusted off to close this one out (don't laugh—he's only 2½ years into retirement and still WAY younger than his longtime teammate Kobe Bryant!)
For most of the second half, the running game was shelved out of both necessity (Denver was making too many shots) and strategy (not advisable to run with only eight dudes). Plus, Thompson lost his outside touch in the 4th, when the team desperately needed it.
And since so much of the Warriors' halfcourt game is built on Curry and Thompson raining 3's, or Green getting open looks when Curry is hounded...well, you saw what happened. Still, it wasn't until that damn Barton—who'd averaged 30 off the bench in his two previous games—contorted his way through Andre Iguodala and scored the tying hoop with essentially no time left in regulation that I personally thought the Warriors could lose. Even without the MVP in the second half, no way could they blow a 26-point lead...right? Sigh...
What we can take from this eventual 111-108 victory: the Warriors proved they can win with seven healthy guys if one of them (Green) puts up yet another triple-double, and they proved that, unlike so many of their past victims, they can squander huge leads and recover to finish on top—Denver trounced them 89-65 over the final three quarters and even briefly led in OT.
Plays of the night: Jason Thompson nailing 3 of 4 free throws in response to Denver strategically—or so they thought—fouling him; Green's early shooting, everything Ian Clark did on offense including a sick flip over Faried in the 3rd to beat the shot clock (though Denver erased him off Jameer Nelson way too easy with simple picks), Shaun Livingston administering what looked at the time like a game-saving rejection of Barton near the end of regulation, and Iguodala coming up with a technically-beautiful revenge stop of Barton's potentially-tying overtime drive. Go Warriors!!!